Smitten with Worms: Jack Chambers and the Sonoma Valley Worm Farm

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Smitten with Worms: Jack Chambers and the Sonoma Valley Worm Farm

How a commercial airline pilot turned into a successful worm farmer

Article and Photos By Rachel LaFranchi, Farm News Production Editor
Published July 1, 2015

Jack Chambers is passionate about worms. Spread over two locations in the Sonoma Valley, he has an estimated 16 million worms and has been steadily growing his worm business since 1992.

Jack Chambers was a commercial airline pilot for 33 years, but four years ago he quit flying to focus more on his second business, a worm farm.

When Chambers retired from flying in 2011, he had already owned the Sonoma Valley Worm Farm for almost 20 years. Chambers has been juggling two careers as he flew around the world for Delta Airlines and managed his growing business on the side.

“I had traveled all over the world, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than Sonoma County,” said Chambers. “By the time I was 59, I was tired of being gone, and I felt like the worm business was where I belonged.”

Chambers, 62, was born in Thousand Oaks, when it was mostly ranch land and had yet to be developed. His father had also been an airline pilot, and Chambers loved the thrill of flying.

Behind the barns that house the worms, Chambers grows a stunning garden using VermiCompost. He attributes his stronger and healthier plants to the worm worked material.

He came to Sonoma County in 1984 and knew it was where he was meant to be. He met his wife, Lois, in Sonoma County and they bought a house in downtown Sonoma. They had a garden in their backyard with a compost pile.

Chambers first bought a five gallon bucket of worms after a friend suggested he visit a local worm farm owned by Earl Schmidt. He added the worms to his compost pile and came home from a five day trip to find the worms had gone through the compost pile, making the compost richer and darker. 

Chambers said that his first experience with worms left him feeling “smitten” like the way someone might feel after looking across the room and thinking “she’s so cute, I’m going to marry her.”

“I just fell in love with the worms,” Chambers said. “It’s like I was drawn to coming here.”
Chambers went back to Schmidt’s farm and asked if he could help. He began to work with Schmidt, who was selling the worms for bait, but as he sought land in the Sonoma Valley, he realized the worm farm was the place he wanted to be and the business he wanted to run.

“One day I said to Earl when we were picking worms out back ‘Earl, what do you like to do besides this?’ and he says, ‘oh I love to fish, but I never have time because I’m here all the time.’  So I turned to him and said ‘why don’t you just sell this to me so you can go fishing.’”

Schmidt thought about Chamber’s offer for two weeks and then decided to sell the worm farm. Chambers and his wife sold their home by the end of the week and purchased the Sonoma Valley Worm Farm in 1992. 

“The worm thing was always the right thing to do,” said Chambers, “whenever I needed help, help has arrived.”

When Chambers first moved to the Sonoma Valley Worm Farm, he knew nothing about worms and it was before access to the internet was wide spread. While waiting for flights in Minneapolis, Chambers would go to the library and look up information about worms on microfiche.

At first, it was the worms Chambers was interested in, but over time he realized it was their castings, the soil they produce, that was the real product.

After attending numerous conferences around the world, Chambers discovered that worms helped decrease soil-borne and plant diseases.

Chambers remodeled unused dairy barns adding his custom designed beds. The additional facility has doubled the production of VermiCompost.

Chambers designed an above ground system to keep his worms in, and this led to the start of his second business, TerraVesco. Chambers retired from flying in 2011 and built more above ground bins for the worms.

In 2012, Brian O’Toole saw Chambers and his business on the PBS show Growing a Greener World in Chicago and thought Chambers looked authentic and was passionate how people could grow better food by doing it more naturally. O’Toole visited the Sonoma Valley Worm Farm and in the fall of 2012 he became an investor in the business along with Richard North who currently runs business operations.

Jack Chambers holds a handful of VermiCompost, a worm worked material he developed. The rich, dark material is Chamber’s original inspiration for purchasing the worm farm.

TerraVesco makes VermiCompost, a highly desired worm worked material for composting. The demand for VermiCompost is greater than the amount they make, and TerraVesco has a waiting list for their VermiCompost. To make VermiCompost, TerraVesco pre-composts organic dairy manure from the Renati Dairy in Petaluma.  The pre-composting process removes pathogens and weed seeds and then cools the compost to the ideal temperature for feeding to the worms.

Over the last two and half to three years, Chambers, O’Toole and North dramatically increased their production of VermiCompost. Chambers had been producing 200 yards in 2011, and by the end of 2015 TerraVesco plans to produce more than 3000 yards. They have recently expanded and leased unused barns from a nearby dairy. The new facility is 100% solar powered. The original facility runs off approximately 80% solar power, but also plans to be self-sustaining in the near future. 

TerraVesco has done extensive research on VermiCompost. For the past 5 years they have been working with Dr. Dan Kluepfel of the USDA, ARS at UC Davis to see if VermiCompost could be used to fight crown gall in walnuts. Completed trials at Purdue showed using 5-10% VermiCompost could reduce the use of chemical fertilizers by 25%. Another propagation trial showed vines planted with 10% VermiCompost had roots 84% larger than those without.

Their next planned trial aims to show that using a small percentage of VermiCompost can reduce the water intake of a plant by 25%.

VermiCompost’s largest application is vineyards which have noted losing fewer plants, vines having bigger root masses, fewer diseases and overall stronger and more resilient vineyards. VermiCompost is also used in nut tree production, by nurseries and for landscaping purposes.

It’s an expensive product at $500 per yard, but Chambers noted that it is used sparingly and costs approximately $150-300 per acre of vineyard planting. He said that the benefits outweigh the costs as using VermiCompost results in higher quality plants. In the long run, people using VermiCompost will save money and see a return on investments, Chambers said.

“Everyone who lives here has the same feeling,” said Chambers “They love Sonoma County. There is a great love for family and tradition here, and there are a lot of families in Sonoma County that want to do the right thing for the family farm that’s been handed down to them. We’re a part of that, wanting to help rebuild soils that have been chemically farmed.”

“We’re trying to get people back to doing more natural things. To help people grow better food, that’s really what it all comes down to,” said Chambers. “We’re not here to change anyone’s mind, but we’re here for the people who say they’re ready to do something different.”

Chambers believes every community should have a worm farm. “Our tag line is feed the soil. The idea is to feed the soil and let the soil feed the plant.”

Sonoma Valley Worm Farm still sells worms, with more than 2,000 pounds of worms a year shipping to individuals and businesses in Northern California. The minimum purchase is two pounds and costs $53. They make about 20 shipments per week.

More information about the Sonoma Valley Worm Farm can be found at www.sonomavalleywormfarm.com and more information about TerraVesco can be found at www.terravesco.com.

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