My Grandfather's
Earthworm Farm

by George Sheffield Oliver

The story of a self-contained farm of 160 acres, maintained in ever-increasing fertility over a period of more than sixty years, through the utilization of earthworms. A true story related to Thomas J. Barrett by Dr. George Sheffield Oliver.

WHEN, as a small boy, I went to live with my grandfather, George Sheffield, in northern Ohio, I found him living on a model farm of 160 acres, which he had farmed continuously for more than sixty years. He was a. man who loved the soil and took pride in every detail of his farm. I remember him as a tall, striking figure, of the type of Edwin Markham. In fact, in later years, when I came across a picture of the poet Markham, I was struck by the close resemblance of the two men -- their features were almost identical and they could have easily been taken for twins.

Some of my pleasantest memories from the period of several years which I spent on this farm are the daily horseback rides I took with my grandfather. After all these years I can still see him, at the age of seventy-five, riding with the ease and grace of the practised horseman, swinging into the saddle with the facility of a man in his prime. At that age he still took delight in riding the young three-year-olds. He lived to the ripe old age of ninety-three.

Originally, this farm-holding had been 1,800 acres, but it had been sold off in forty-acre tracts to former tenants until there remained only the farmstead of 160 acres. It had been my grandfather's practice to select young single men as farm help. As these men reached maturity and married and wanted to establish homes of their own, my grandfather would set each of them up on a tract of forty acres or more, assist them in getting started, and accept a payment contract over a period of forty years. Thus, his close neighbours were men who, like himself, loved the soil and could co-operate in all community work. My grandfather often remarked that he was making more profit from his remaining 160 acres than he ever made on the original 1,800 acres, due to his lifetime experience, improved methods, and the intensive utilization of earthworms.

The homestead was located at the centre the farm. Four acres of orchard and garden furnished an abundance of fruits and vegetables the year round. Root cellars, vegetable banks, canned and dried fruits and vegetables provided for the winter months. The house and orchard were backed by forty acres of timbered land -- maple, hickory, black walnut, burr oak, and many other trees native to Ohio. Incidentally, the farm was fenced with black walnut rails -- beautiful timber which would be almost priceless at this time. My grandfather called this timbered tract his park. It was, indeed, a wonderful park, abounding in small game and bird life to delight the soul of a small boy with his first gun. The park was well watered with living springs and a quite generous-sized creek ran through it, large enough to furnish all the fish the family needed. I was designated as the official fish-catcher, a task which I dearly loved.

It is important to get a picture of the layout of the farm, in order to understand its efficient operation without waste of time and energy. It was divided into four tracts of forty acres each. The homestead, with orchard, garden and park occupied one forty. Near the centre of the 160 acres was located the great barnyard of about two acres, with broad swinging gates in each of the four sides, opening into lanes which led into each of the forty-acre tracts. Thus the stock could be herded into any part of the farm, simply by opening the proper gate and driving them through the lane into the particular section that was to be pastured.

Located in the four corners of the barnyard were the strawstacks -- alternating wheat stack, oat stack, wheat stack, oat stack. These stacks occupied permanent raised platforms, about six feet above the ground, resting on sturdy walnut posts and covered by small logs, or poles, cut from the woods. The stock had good shelter under these platforms in the winter, feeding on the straw overhead through the cracks between the logs. Plenty of straw was always thrown down for bedding. My grandfather claimed that each kind of straw added valuable elements of fertility to his compost, and he alternated the straw stacks so that the wheat and oat straw would be evenly mixed.

In the centre of the barnyard was the compost pit, which, in the light of my present knowledge, I now know to have been the most perfect and scientific fertilizer production unit I have ever known. This pit was fifty feet wide and one hundred feet long and had been excavated to a depth of about two feet. At each end, evenly spaced from side to side and about twenty feet from the end, a heavy log post was deeply anchored. These posts were probably twelve to fifteen feet high, with an overhead cable anchored to the top of each post and running to the barn. On these cables were large travelling dump baskets, in which the manure from the barn was transported to the compost pit and dumped each morning, to be evenly spread in a uniform layer. By means of the posts in each end, the manure could be dumped at a spot most convenient for proper handling. With this arrangement of overhead trolley from barn to compost pit, it was possible to clear the barn quickly each morning of the night's droppings and spread the material in the pit without any loss of the valuable elements of fresh manure. This is an important point in the utilization of earthworms for general farming.

Just outside the barnyard ran the creek, which found its source in a big spring in the park. From this creek an abundance of water was piped by gravity into the watering troughs for the stock in barn and yard. Also a flume, with a controlled intake, led to the compost pit, so that when necessary the compost could be well soaked in a few minutes. The homestead occupied ground on a higher level than the barnyard, so that drainage was always away from the house and there was no chance of pollution from the teeming life of the barnyard.

To one side of the barnyard and at a higher level than the floor of the yard was located the ice pond. This pond was so arranged that it could be filled from a flume, leading by gravity from the creek at one end, while at the lower end a spillway was provided so that the pond could be drained. At the proper season, the ice pond would be filled and when the ice formed to the right thickness the annual harvest of ice was cut and stored in the ice house, to provide an abundance of ice for all purposes the year round. The bottom of this pond was formed of a fine-textured red clay. Each spring the pond was drained and with teams of scrapers many tons of this clay were scraped out and diked around the borders of the pond to weather for use on the compost heap.

And now enters the earthworm. For more than sixty years these 160 acres had been farmed without a single crop failure. My grandfather was known far and wide for the unequalled excellence of his corn and other grain, and a large part of his surplus was disposed of at top prices for seed purposes. The farm combined general farming and stock raising; my grandfather's hobby, for pleasure and profit, was the breeding and training of fine saddle horses and matched Hambletonian teams. He maintained a herd of about fifty horses, including stud, brood mares, and colts in all stages of development. In addition to horses, he had cattle, sheep, hogs, and a variety of fowl, including a flock of about five hundred chickens which had the run of the barnyard,with a flock of ducks. Usually about three hundred head of stock were wintered. The hired help consisted of three or four men, according to the season, with additional help at rush seasons. This establishment was maintained in prosperity and plenty, and my grandfather attributed his unvarying success as a farmer to his utilization of earthworms in maintaining and rebuilding the fertility of the soil in an unbroken cycle. The heart of the farming technique was the compost pit.

As previously mentioned, the pit was fifty by one hundred feet, excavated to a depth of two feet, and it was especially designed to provide a great breeding bed for earthworms. Literally millions of earthworms inhabited the pit and compost heap. Each morning the barn was cleaned, the droppings for the previous twenty-four hours were transported to the heap by the dump baskets on the overhead trolley, and evenly spread over the surface. The building of the compost heap was an invariable daily routine of the farm work. A flock of chickens everlastingly scratched and worked in the barnyard, assisted by the ducks, gleaning every bit of undigested grain that found its way into the manure, and incidentally adding about twenty tons of droppings per year to the material which eventually found its way into the compost heap. The cattle and sheep grazed around the four straw stacks and bedded under the shelter of the stacks, adding their droppings to the surface and treading them into the bedding material. From time to time the entire barnyard was raked and scraped, the combined manure and litter being harrowed to the compost heap and distributed in an even layer over the entire surface. As the compost reached a depth of twelve to fourteen inches, several tons of the red clay from the border of the ice pond would be hauled in and spread in an even layer over the surface of the compost. Thus the variety of animal manures from horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, and fowl alternated in the heap with layers of the fine-textured clay, rich in mineral elements. Meantime, beneath the surface the earthworms multiplied in untold millions, gorging ceaselessly upon the manures and decomposing vegetable matter, as well as the mineral clay soil, and depositing their excreta in the form of castings -- a completely broken down, deodorized soil, rich in all the elements of plant life. From time to time as necessary (the necessity being determined by careful inspection on the part of my grandfather), the compost would be watered through the flume leading from the creek, thus being provided with the moisture needed to permit the earthworms to function to the greatest advantage in their life-work of converting compost to humus.

Within a few months the earthworms had completed their work. When spring arrived, the season of the annual ploughing, the top layer of the heap would be stripped back, revealing the perfect work of the worms. What had originally been an ill-smelling mixture of manure, urine, and litter, was now a dark, fertile, crumbly soil, with the odour of fresh-turned earth. This material was not handled with forks, but with shovels. There were no dense cakes of burned, half-decomposed manure. My grandfather would take a handful of the material and smell it before pronouncing it ready for the fields. The 'smell test' was a sure way of judging the quality. When perfect transformation had taken place, all odour of manure had disappeared and the material had the clean smell of new earth.

At this time of the year, the beginning of the spring ploughing, the compost heap was almost a solid mass of earthworms and every shovel of material would contain scores of them. As I now know from years of study and experiment, every cubic foot of this material contained hundreds and hundreds of earthworm egg-capsules, each of which, within two or three weeks after burial in the fields, would hatch out from two or three to as many as twenty worms. Thus the newly hatched earthworms became the permanent population of the soil, following their life-work of digesting the organic material, mixing and combining it with much earth in the process, and depositing it in and on the surface as castings -- a finely conditioned, homogenized soil, rich in the stored and available elements of plant food in water-soluble form.

When the spring ploughing began, the following method was adopted: Several teams were used with the ploughs, while two or three farm wagons with deep beds were employed in hauling the crumbly end-product of the earthworms from the compost pit to the fields. The wagons worked ahead of the ploughs, the material being spread generously on the surface and quickly ploughed under. Seldom was any material exposed on the surface more than a few minutes ahead of the ploughs, for part of the technique followed was to plough the egg-capsules and live earthworms under, so that as many of the earthworms would survive as possible to continue their valuable work in the soil. Also it was necessary to plough the worms and capsules under as quickly as possible to escape the voracious, marauding crows which swarmed in great flocks to the feast of worms and capsules so thoughtfully spread for them. At this time, to my great delight, I was appointed crow hunter. Armed with a light shotgun, I industriously banged away at the crows to my heart's content, killing some of them and keeping hundreds of them at a distance until the ploughs could turn the earth and bury the worms and capsules safe from the birds and the sun. I estimate that several tons per acre of this highly potent fertilizer material were annually ploughed into the fields in preparation for the crops to follow. On account of this technique, not only was the earth continually occupied by a very numerous worm population the year round, but annually a generous 'seeding' with live earthworms and capsules was planted to replenish and help renew the fertility of the earth.

More than forty years after my experience on my grandfather's farm, studies of the earthworms in the soil of Ohio were made by the Ohio State University. In plots of soil covered with bluegrass, on the Ohio State University Farm, they found earthworms in numbers of one million or more per acre. From my experience of almost a lifetime of study and experimentation with earthworms, I am sure that the earthworm population of my grandfather's farm far exceeded one million to the acre.

In the annual distribution of the fertilizer, my grandfather never completely stripped the compost pit. One year he would begin the hauling at one end of the pit, stripping back the top layers of material which had not been broken down, leaving a generous portion at the other end of the pit as breeding and culture ground. After the hauling of the fertilizer was completed, the entire remaining contents of the pit were evenly spread over the entire surface for 'mother substance' and the new compost heap was thus begun. By this method there was always left a very large number of breeding earthworms, with vast numbers of egg capsules, to repopulate the compost pit and carry on the highly important work of providing fertilizer for the coming year. In this warm, highly favourable environment, the worms multiplied with maximum rapidity.

In my experiments in later years, I determined that certain breeds of earthworms, in a favourable environment and with an abundance of food material to work on, will work ceaselessly in concentrations of more than 50,000 to the cubic yard; also, that 50,000 earthworms thus working will completely transform one cubic yard of material per month. Thus, in nature we have a. constructive force which creates humus with amazing rapidity when given the opportunity and, under proper control, furnishes a method for utilizing every possible end-product of biological activity through the very simple process of composting with earthworms.

Going back to my grandfather's farm, his regular rotation of crops was corn, wheat, oats, timothy, and clover hay, in a three-year cycle. One forty-acre tract was planted to timothy and clover each year. A crop of hay was harvested and stored for the winter, the field was used for grazing, and finally a crop was turned under for green manure. In this manner, each year one 'forty' was left undisturbed by the plough for a number of months, allowing the earthworm population to work and multiply to the maximum, while converting the organic content of the earth into the finest form of humus. When the clover fields were ploughed under an almost unbelievable number of earthworms was revealed as the sod was turned.

One fact I failed to mention was that this land was not usually considered the finest to begin with. It was a thin topsoil, only six to eight inches in depth over much of the farm, underlaid by limestone. On account of the shallow depth of the soil, deep subsoil ploughing was not possible. I well remember how the ploughs would scoot along on top of the almost surface limestone layer. However, the vast earthworm population penetrated deeply into the subsoil and constantly brought up parent mineral material to combine with the surface soil, which made up for the lack of deep soil. My grandfather often remarked that in all his sixty years of farming he had never had a crop failure. His corn was the finest in all the country and was eagerly sought for seed. He also originated a sweet corn, of a delicious flavour, which was very highly esteemed throughout that section and was known at that time as 'Sheffield corn'. The ears were very uniform and evenly filled to the end, and I remember that the cob of this special corn was hardly larger than a carpenter's lead pencil. My grandfather never sold this corn, but reserved it to give to friends who came from far and wide for the prized seed and even wrote to from distant points for seed.

Now looking back through the long vista of years to the method practised on my grandfather's farm, in the light of my own experience as well as the experience of a host of others, I am struck by the reflection that here was a simple farmer, working without any specialized knowledge of earthworms to begin with, long before Charles Darwin's famous book on The Formation of Vegetable Mould appeared; and yet, in an intensely practical way, utilizing all that Darwin later revealed in his great book, but with the exception that Darwin never suggested the 'harnessing of the earthworm' for intensive human use. Darwin's classic study only emphasized the importance of the work of the earthworm in nature, with no practical application to the personal agricultural problems of man.

Before ending this narrative of my grandfather's earthworm farm, I must mention the orchard, the garden, and the fence rows. The fence rows throughout the farm were planted to a great variety of fruit trees, which were allowed to develop from seedlings. Particularly do I remember the cherry trees, some of them fifty feet high and each tree bearing a different kind of fruit. In the four acres of orchard and garden surrounding the house there was produced a great variety of fruit, furnishing an abundance, in season, for the family as well as for many of the neighbours. In those days the fruit was not sold. I remember an often-repeated remark of my grandfather upon the care of trees, especially fruit trees. He said, 'Never disturb the soil under a tree. The earthworm is the best plough for a tree and I do not want them disturbed.' The vegetable garden was especially fine, kept wonderfully enriched from the compost pit, the soil being literally alive with earthworms. A profusion of flowers both potted and otherwise, as well as a wealth of shrubbery, beautified the place. For choice flowers, we would use a rich mixture of fine soil and material from the compost pit.

My grandfather's earthworm farm furnishes an example of the technique for utilizing the earthworm in general farming operations, either on a large or small scale. From my observations as a small boy, supplemented by much friendly and loving instruction from my grandfather on the subject of earthworms, and from more than forty years' experience in my own work, I am fully convinced that the harnessing of the earthworm will be one of the major factors in the eventual salvation of the soil. I know that the soil can be made to produce several times as much as the present average, through the utilization of the earthworm.

Earthworms in General Farming

(Note by Thomas J. Barrett)

One of the questions most frequently asked is 'How would you utilize earthworms for large acreage and general farming?' We are fortunate in having a true story of a large Ohio farm which was operated with full use of earthworms during the period from about 1830 to 1890. Early in my research into the subject of earthworms, I came in contact with the late Dr. George Sheffield Oliver, pioneer earthworm culturist of California. We were close friends and collaborators for a number of years prior to his death. In answer to my questions about the use of earthworms for large acreage, Dr. Oliver related to me the story of his early youth on his grandfather's farm. I can think of no better way to present the technique for utilization of earthworms in general farming and for large acreage than to tell the story, reconstructing it very much as Dr. Oliver told it.

While this story gives the broad basic principles for use of earthworms in general farming, the earthworm farmer of today will have the advantage of modern composting techniques and many other improvements which have been worked out during the past few decades. However, the earthworms remain the same, for they have come down to us practically unchanged, from remote geological ages to the present.

In a later chapter, I shall give a report of earthworm tillage on a modern farm, with results which are corroborative of those reported as follows by Dr. Oliver.

From "Harnessing the Earthworm" by Dr. Thomas J. Barrett, Humphries, 1947, with an Introduction by Eve Balfour; Wedgewood Press, Boston, 1959; Bookworm Pub Co, ISBN 0916302091
"A practical inquiry into soil building, soil conditions, and plant nutrition through the action of earthworms, with instruction for the intensive propagation and use of domesticated earthworms in biological soil building." Well-researched, well-written, pioneering book on vermicomposting, very positive outlook, a refreshing read. Facts, figures and illustrations, details of Barrett's Earthmaster Culture Bed. From Vermico:
From City

Friend Earthworm -- by George Sheffield Oliver
Table of Contents
Part I
-- Introduction
Lesson 1 -- History of the Earthworm
Lesson 2 -- The Habits of the Earthworm
Lesson 3 -- Habits of the Newly Developed Earthworm
Lesson 4 -- Potential Markets for Earthworms
Part II -- Introduction
Lesson 1 -- What Is Food?
Lesson 2 -- The Life Germ and Better Poultry
Lesson 3 -- Economical Poultry Housing
Lesson 4 -- The Interior of the Economical Hennery
Lesson 5 -- Intensive Range
Lesson 6 -- Putting the Bluebottle Fly to Work
Part III -- Introduction
Lesson 1 -- Natural and Man-Made Enemies of the Earthworm
Lesson 2 -- The Trout Farmer's Problem
Lesson 3 -- Feeding Problem of the Frog Farmer
Lesson 4 -- Housing the Earthworm Stock
Lesson 5 -- General Care and Feeding of Earthworms

My Grandfather's Earthworm Farm
Eve Balfour on Earthworms
Albert Howard on Earthworms
The Housefly

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