Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Illinois High School Worm Project Becomes Family Business

Source: ACES News: Karen Moore, 815 268-4051; ksmoore@illinois.edu

Pay close attention to your child's high school assignments. They may become a family business one day. That's how Lynn Wilken got into the worm business.

His son A.J. needed a project for Future Farmers of America. "Worms were a hobby for me," said Wilken. "About four years ago, A.J. took it over as an FFA project. He worked at building it up, and took it to the FFA contests." Today, producing vermicompost is a part of the Wilken's diversified farming operation.

The University of Illinois is hosting this year's first sustainable agriculture tour to Wilken Worm Farm in Ashkum on Thursday, May 27.

The Wilkens currently raise African night crawlers — 250 per bucket. "We keep them in a temperature-controlled building," he said. "We feed them and allow them to eat through the bedding in two weeks time. Then we harvest them using screens with different sized holes to separate the worms, the castings, and the worm eggs."

The castings, which are actually worm manure, get bagged and sold as microbial-rich fertilizer. The eggs are placed into an incubator to hatch, then into buckets with new bedding, and the process begins again.

Wilken has been selling the castings to wholesalers so the profit margin is small. "We are working on ways to build the business by selling to landscapers, golf courses, retail outlets, and direct sales to individuals. We're also hoping to expand the worm production itself. We plan on raising meal worms to sell to pet shops and for use in bird seed. We're also looking into raising red worms to sell to bait shops," he said.

Vermiculture is only a small portion of the Wilken's current farming operation. "My brother and I run a soybean seed processing plant under the name MWS Seeds," he said. "We raise about 30 varieties of soybeans on our own farm and contract with other farms for additional acres."

Birdseed also provides income for Wilken. "We bring in semi truck loads of sunflower seed, millet, safflower, and various other grains to mix with corn from our own farm to produce several birdseed mixes that attract different birds like finches, cardinals, and other songbirds," he said.

Karen Moore, U of I Extension Director of the Ford-Iroquois Unit commends Wilken for his unique combination of vermiculture, birdseed sales, and the family seed operation because it demonstrates compatibility through seasonal building usage.

"As we move into 21st century agriculture, it is important to think outside the box and move forward with new ideas that will assure profitability in the ag industry as well as provide for the needs of consumers in our state, nation, and internationally. This family business is an excellent example of how a seemingly small FFA project has grown into a viable entity in the community," she said.

The schedule for the remaining 2010 sustainable agriculture tours is as follows:

June 18, Feeding Universities Sustainably

Farmer Brown's Production Company and Mulberry Hill Farm, Jackson County


July 27, Illinois Berries

J & J Berry Farm, Jersey County

August 13, Romance Tour — Flowers and Wine

Bright Flower Nursery and Famous Fossil Vineyard & Winery

Jo Daviess County and Stephenson County


September 15, Agritourism — Farm Fresh Fun

Country Corner, Henry County http://www.country-corner.com

A fee of $20 per person will be charged for each tour, which includes lunch. Two adults pay $30 when registered together and children under the age of 10 attend free.

Registration at least one week in advance is required.

Visit http://web.extension.illinois.edu/smallfarm/ag_tours.cfm to register and for more details about each of the tours including a map and agenda. To register by phone, contact Donna Cray at 217-241-4644. For more information, contact Deborah Cavanaugh-Grant (217-968-5512; cvnghgrn@illinois.edu).

University of Illinois Extension is a statewide educational network that links the resources and research of the University of Illinois to the people of Illinois. The programs and workshops, which take place throughout the state, address issues involving youth, families, community development, agriculture, and natural resources. If reasonable accommodations are needed in order to participate in any of the programs, call 217-241-4644.

The tours are sponsored by the University of Illinois Extension, the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Professional Development Program, the Agriculture Tourism Partners of Illinois (ATPI), and the Agroecology/Sustainable Agriculture Program (ASAP) at the University of Illinois.

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