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The compost with the most

EUGENE — In the shadow of Skinner Butte, just a few yards west of a playground along the Willamette River, sits a rectangular box in the patchwork of community plots that comprise the Skinner City Farm.

The box looks like a truck trailer, but with a winch at each end, and a grate that covers the top, secured by a padlock. The lock is there to prevent thieves from robbing the farm of a writhing mass of creatures that can turn table scraps into "gold," in the words of the nonprofit farm's coordinator, Jan VanderTuin.

Those creatures are worms — red wigglers, to be precise — and there are thousands of them chowing through compost gathered up from area markets and restaurants, turning that food waste into castings that are about as premium a soil as money can buy.

It's just composting — vermicomposting, as it's known — but this form of it can produce usable soil in about a third the time taken by the giant black compost tumblers that also occupy the Skinner farm, and knowledge of this little secret appears to be spreading, thanks in part to the ongoing economic recession.

Skinner farm also sells the soil-producing worms — though technically it's a "suggested donation" of $15 — for a Nancy's Yogurt container of wrigglers. Last year, VanderTuin said, the volume nearly doubled, from the typical 30 or 40 customers to about 60.

He attributes that growth in part to Eugene residents' love of using organic waste wisely. Or, as Oregon State University extension horticultural agent Ross Penhallegon puts it, "Around here, composting is king."

As often as four times a year, the extension service offers classes on worm composting, and they're usually attended by about 40 people a class, Penhallegon said. The first class held this year drew 70 participants.

"People are looking at effective, low-input, sustainable ways of gardening," Penhallegon said.

Typical composting requires heat at the center of a compost pile to turn scraps into soil, but the Willamette Valley doesn't see temperatures high enough to make that process happen quickly, said Dan "The Worm Man" Jaggers, who has been breeding and selling worms out of his house in west Eugene for the past three years. Worms eat their body weight plus half each day, so they're working to break down scraps regardless of the outside temperature.

Jaggers is a maintenance worker at a senior housing facility in town, but he studied horticulture and vermiculture in the 1970s, he said. When the kids left for college, he and his wife found that they were still putting out about a can of garbage each week, destined for a landfill.

"I realized I could feed a lot of this stuff to worms," Jaggers said.

Quickly, his trash pickups were reduced to monthly as he fed more scraps to worms, and it wasn't long before he had more worms than he needed. He set up an incubator, speeding the worms' progress from egg to full-fledged wriggler, and started advertising, about three years ago.

"I was bombarded with people wanting worms," he said.

To account for the inevitable periodic slumps in local demand, Jaggers supplements his Web site sales — www.danthewormman.com — with an eBay effort.

In a good month, he'll sell 50 to 75 pounds. At 800 to 1,000 worms per pound, that's a considerable amount of wigglers.

"A lot of people are hip to having worms," Jaggers said. "Some people are a little skittish about touching them."

Jaggers' customers have included people who live in high-rise apartment complexes in New York City. The 20-by-20-inch pine boxes he sells along with the worms have three levels and mesh liners at the bottom of each level, for the worms to work their way up through.

The castings fall through the mesh, and can be used immediately as soil.

The three-tray set plus a pound of worms is $70 in Eugene, with shipping added for out-of-city destinations, according to the Web site.

Jaggers and the Skinner farm aren't the only places in Lane County that market the worms on a commercial scale. Three Tree Farms in Cottage Grove — www.redwiggler.com — sells worms, bags of castings, and worm bins, along with other agricultural products. A pound of red wigglers is $35, including shipping and handling.

Jaggers says many of his customers are referred by the Down to Earth home and garden stores in Eugene, which sell worm castings.

It's a popular product, said Jack Bates, Down to Earth's founder and board chairman.

"People that have been using it in gardening have been pretty successful," Bates said. "Demand is at an all-time high."