How a Nebraska farm is using worms to improve soil health

Feb. 28, 2024, 5 a.m. ·

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(Photo by Sarah Lawlor/Nebraska Public Media News)

It’s been almost ten years since Brent and Marykae Broberg decided to add an interesting creature to their family farm: African nightcrawlers. Thousands of them.

Brent Broberg had never considered farming worms until he read an article about it. Once he read it, he couldn’t get them off his mind.

His new interest paired with rising instability in the hog market led him and his wife to take a leap of faith and invest in some earthworms.

Initially, Broberg thought he would raise the worms for bait. But it’s actually their castings, better known as worm poop, that drives the business.

Broberg tore out the pens of his 500-head hog finisher building and started moving in all the materials the worms would need.

Taking out the first pen was a big step for Broberg.

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(Photo by Sarah Lawlor/Nebraska Public Media News)

“I sat there and I literally thought, ‘Alright Brent, is this really what you want?’” he said. “Because I’m like once you do it and I start hauling the gates out, no turning back then.”

At the farm, Broberg raises worms in crates that are about a foot deep. The crates, filled with peat moss, are where they spend two weeks eating, mating and laying eggs.

The worms are incredibly sensitive to cold temperatures, so Broberg has learned to keep the peat moss around 70 degrees. He achieves that through heated floors and an electric heater to keep the worms protected from outer elements.

Keeping the worms alive during cold, dry winters has proved challenging.

“You can’t fool a worm,” Broberg said. “They know it’s winter. Their biological clock knows it’s wintertime, and so it’s harder to keep them alive.”

After the worms have spent two weeks in the peat moss, Broberg puts them through a trommel that a fellow worm farmer in Wisconsin built for him.

The trommel is a large cylindrical drum that sits on an angle and has different sized screens along its walls: the first to separate the peat moss, the second to separate the eggs and the third to separate the castings. The remaining worms spin out at the end of the trommel.

Broberg said worms typically live about 100 weeks. They produce the most eggs between 20 and 40 weeks.

Before transforming the hog finisher into a space large enough for the worms, he kept a couple hundred in a few crates on his parents’ land just a few miles from his own. He wasn’t selling much either, mostly in 15 to 30 pound quantities to farmers who already knew the product well. Now, he sells by the ton.

“We kind of went into the bulk end of it, which was easier for us just to put it in a sack, a one-ton super sack,” Broberg said. “And it was almost, believe it or not, easier to sell one-ton super sacks than it was 30 pound sacks, just because the people that use that are bigger companies, and they know what it is.”

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(Photo by Sarah Lawlor/Nebraska Public Media News)

The castings work alongside other fertilizers to create a more enhanced soil for farmers and gardeners, said Marykae Broberg.

“You can put the castings in the compost and help expand the bugs in the compost,” Marykae said. “It's not in place of, but working alongside just to get a really nice soil base is what it's doing.”

Nebraska State Soil Scientist Carlos Villarreal said the goal of natural solutions like worm castings is to strengthen the soil’s overall biology. A strong soil biology means better health for what’s being planted.

“What we’re really trying to do is just beef up that soil biology,” Villarreal said. “So that’s the benefit of having worm castings, or compost, or compost blended with biochar, those types of organic ways to amend the soil.”

Customers use the castings in their own ways. Some liquify the product to spray over their crops, while others find ways to work it into their compost recipes. No matter how it’s used, Broberg is excited to help people restore a balance that he said products like pesticide have disrupted.

“As we’re killing those microbes, we’ve got to replenish them,” Broberg said. “So it’s just kind of a vicious cycle. So that’s where the worm castings come in, building those bugs, good microbes back up in the soil. The plant and the bugs have a relationship with each other.”

Around town, he’s known as the “worm guy,” but he’s proud to tell people what castings can do for their farm, and give them advice if they’re thinking of raising their own worms.

“I've had a lot of people call and ask about raising worms, and I tell them, ‘I'm not trying to discourage you, but it's way more work than you think,’” Broberg said. “You don't think about the down the road, I've got to have storage space for this stuff, I've got to have a bag sealer, I've got to have a certified scale.”

He’s had his fair share of hard lessons learned, but has found a farmer or two that is willing to lend a hand when he needs it.

“I’ve killed a lot of worms, I’m not gonna lie,” Broberg said. “We’ve had issues and learned about heating, and ventilation, and temperature and moisture of your peat. All those have been some growing pains, but without doing them you don’t know.”

With support from his family, his wife and the farmers he’s found along the way, Broberg believes the investment has paid off.

“You don’t tear apart a 500-head hog finisher without faith, and whether you know that it’s gonna work or not,” Broberg said. “We knew we’d be fine either way, so we’ve always got that in our mind.”