Lincoln ‘Worm Czar’ touts the benefits of composting

Jeremiah Picard is the self-proclaimed “Worm Czar” of Big Red Worms, a composting facility in Lincoln.

His official title is project manager of the worm-assisted composting operation. The vermiculture company is owned by the Nebraska Farmer’s Union and supported by grants from the Nebraska Environmental Trust. The company is one of three commercial composting sites in Lincoln.

Raising worms runs in Picard family. His dad did it, and his granddad before that.

“Oh yeah, I love worms,” he said. “They are really quiet pets. They don’t make a mess. Then they make me a product that is amazing.”

Picard has been raising worms and composting on a small scale for about 15 years. He studied computer programming and electrical engineering in college, and never thought he would be raising worms on a large scale.

“We are talking 2 million worms versus two thousand worms,” he said.

Picard had to learn how to run a commercial scale operation. It’s small though. Big Red Worms focuses on producing compost for gardeners rather than bulk compost for farming.

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Before composting full time, Picard worked at a Community Supported Agriculture farm in northeast Lincoln for four years with his wife. They sold produce at farmer’s markets. As farmers, they found a lack of good nutrients available for soil such as worm castings, worm defecation. So when Picard had an opportunity to create quality composted soil, he took it.

“I’ve always been really motivated to have action rather than meetings,” he said. “I’d rather implement change.”

The work keeps him busy. In addition to composting 40 hours a week, Picard works on replacing his grass lawn at home with an urban farm, writes grants for Big Red Worms and works at the Farmer’s Union.

The best part of his job is teaching kids in Lincoln Public Schools about composting and what worms are capable of. The worst part is dealing with food waste and smelling like it for the rest of the day.

Working in composting has made Picard more aware of the waste in our society.

“We are such a throw-away society,” he said. “No one cares where anything goes after they touch it.”

Lincoln generates 150 tons of compostable material per day, Picard said. He sees a lot of opportunity for other people to compost.

Local food waste diversion

One partner for food waste is the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s student union. The partnership started from a student government bill. Pre-consumer food waste from the union food court started being diverted to Big Red Worms in August 2016.

For the union, the partnership has been a good introduction to the possibilities of composting, said Brent Freeman, assistant director of operations.

The next step for Big Red Worms is to double production capacity in the next six months, replicate the model in different locations and explore turning composting into a cooperative business structure, Picard said.

It takes about a year for food waste to become soil. The first batch of compost will be ready for sale by this summer’s farmer’s markets.

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