Monday, January 12, 2004

Worm Scams

There have been warnings in the news again lately about worm farm scams. In general, the way this works is that you pay a company, say, a thousand bucks or ten thousand bucks or some amount to get set up in the worm business. They provide instruction, worms, maybe a worm bin, and then promise to buy the worms back from you for a fixed price per pound. The worms, they claim, will reproduce rapidly, get fat and happy, and you’ll make a fortune selling them back to the company at the contract price. Some of these companies claim to have buyers for the worms, like bait companies, municipal composting programs, and the like, but often their only customer is the next sucker buying into the scam. The money to pay their contracts comes mostly from new incoming contracts. It’s a classic Ponzi scheme.

Now, I’m not saying that every worm growing arrangement works like this, but I’ve heard enough sad stories about people who lost their money and got stuck with worms they couldn’t sell, to be wary of the whole thing. If you want to learn more, check out the Oklahoma Department of Securities, which prosecuted a worm contract operation recently.

There’s a personal connection here, too. My husband Scott’s grandparents bought into one of these contracts in the early seventies. They planned on raising worms to sell as fishing bait. Scott’s grandfather built several large boxes in the backyard to house the worms, but they ran into trouble when it was time to get the worms out of their bins and into little cartons for the bait shop. “I can’t tell you how many hours I spent picking worms out of that dirt,” Scott’s grandmother told me. “I’ll never forget that. We never made a dime off those worms.”

It’s not so unusual for people to find themselves with a backyard full of worm boxes and no market for the worms. Some people give up and stop feeding them, let them make their own way out of the boxes, let the colony of earthworms simply die off, or leave the boxes open as food for the birds. After all, it is no easy feat to find a good home for a hundred thousand worms.

In my family’s case, the worms found a good home with Scott’s uncle Peter, who had space for a large composting operation in the backyard of the Oakland commune where he lived at the time. The worms thrived there. “Five gallons of kitchen slop would disappear in about 24 hours,” he told me. “Eventually there were so many worms that trying to dig in that pile was like digging in hamburger. Ghastly, really. I was afraid my baby Nick would be eaten if he crawled in there.”

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