MORRISVILLE, NY — When you visit Central New York farmer’s markets or garden centers, you’re likely to see the buffalo girl, the honey guy and the chicken lady. But in the mix of vendors, you’ll come upon a different kind of livestock farmer and her signature mascot, O’Smiley McWiggler. Yes, ladies, gentlemen, gardeners and farmers, you’ve happened upon a red-wiggler royal: The Worm Queen.
Farmer Tina Jacobs, the passionate, unrivaled purveyor of vermicompost is making waves (or castings) in the region for her carefully crafted plant food which gardeners hail as a magical soil amendment. “The magic is in the worm’s gut where all the microbes are. Feeding soil and plants good biological bugs are like humans ingesting probiotic rich yogurt for a healthy lifestyle. And like the benefits of natural probiotics, the quality can be measured in teaspoons not tons,” said Jacobs.
The “casting” call began in 2010. When friends offered to sell their 70-acre former dairy farm to the Jacob’s family, the mother of four grown children and former office administrator started the business with moral, monetary and muscle help from her husband, Mike. Unique to the property was a 10-year old pole barn, which their friends had built for their son’s beginning vermicompost business.
It just so happened that in the middle of the barn was a long windrow of compost with some worms still hanging on to dear life. “I was hooked,” said Jacobs. “We decided to take the farm that wasn’t being used to its full potential and turn it into a productive place that our family could enjoy and would grow nutritious food.”
The business needed a name, but what would one call this exciting new career? It was a clear choice. “The venture was named in memory of my mother and father, Bill and Alice Devine. I cherish the values they lived by including integrity, honesty and love of family. My dad was a full-blooded Irishman so it was natural that our signature, stately mascot would be Irish too. That is how O’Smiley McWiggler came to his prominence on labels for Devine Gardens, LLC.
“Learning about making high quality vermicompost and how it relates to soil health has been fun and interesting,” said Tina. She has attended two North Carolina State University Vermiculture Conferences, the U.S. Compost Council’s 40-Hour Training Course and participated in compost workshops put on by NERC and Cornell Waste Management. Internet resources and studying good books have also been invaluable.
Tina gets her ingredients from their dairy barn, which is run by their long-time friend, Bob, who raises heifers and pigs. Their waste is combined with bedding and mulch/sawdust that they purchase from a local lumber mill to provide the worm’s feedstock. It’s then thoroughly mixed in an old TMR mixer wagon and moved to a four-bay aerated static compost system to be pre-composted for at least three days at a temperature of at least 131 degrees.
The worm smorgasbord is then moved to the pole barn to feed her 4’x8’x22” raised beds containing about 32,000 red wigglers (Eisenia fetida) per bed as needed. “During the worm’s production season I’m busy feeding and watering the worms, harvesting their product, screening and packing about 250 yards of finished material,” said Jacobs. “The worms are fed thin layers of food regularly to maintain aerobic conditions and appropriate moisture levels. The duration of vermicomposting has to be long enough that the worms have totally worked through the feedstock. From December to April the worms are dormant so I tuck them in for winter and give them a nice thick layer of food, water them, cover them with sheets of foam insulation and set their heat cables to 32 degrees.”
The end product is a concentrated screened vermicompost that is tested yearly by Penn State University and sold in one quart, four quart and 16 quart containers at approximately 10 stores within 50 miles of the farm. Bulk screened and unscreened products are sold at the farm as well as compost tea recipes.
To promote sales, Tina goes to stores and gives away samples and talks with customers as well as promotes at farmer markets and garden shows/festivals in the area. Some sales are through their online website. “A lot of people have not heard of vermicompost. I know from my own experience that there are a lot of people who just don’t ever think about soil health and why it’s important. When they become enlightened about what it is and how it will help their plants they are interested, said Jacobs. Anyway, I like talking with people in person. One unexpected benefit is all of the gardening tips I learn from fellow gardeners.”
While selling at a local garden center’s event, she met the director of WISE (Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship) Women’s Business Center at Syracuse University. Through WISE she has received marketing mentorship, attends business workshops and received a six-session sales course. Her work ethic and passion caught the eye of the center and was awarded a top “innova-her” success honor at the center’s 10th year anniversary gala.
To improve her communication skills she joined a Toastmasters group in Cazenovia, NY. “I never have liked talking to a crowd and because of my nervousness I wasn’t effective. Toastmasters International has done wonders for me being able to relate my thoughts in a logical, meaningful way,” said Jacobs. “I’m presently enrolled in Annie’s Project, a six-session program that strengthens women’s roles in farm enterprises.” The worm queen was also awarded a value-added producer grant in October 2016 from the USDA worth $30,743 dollars to improve packaging and marketing in an effort to boost sales.
Gardeners are becoming believers in the use of Tina’s castings concoction. They are seeing healthier, bigger, nutrient-dense plants that are more pest and drought tolerant. There is interest from organic farmers who want natural soil amendments for their pastures and row crops. “The market is growing by leaps and bounds and we hope to grow our business right along with it, said Jacobs. “My goal is to help people have more gardening/farming success through the use of my vermicompost and share helpful advice and knowledge.”
Mike and Tina are also expanding into grass-fed Dexter cattle, and some laying and meat chickens for home use. “The cows are more fun to work with than the worms. Worms do not have much personality and they don’t like to be petted either.”
“Our hope for the future is that we will make enough profit off of the different enterprises from the farm that Mike and I can eventually both work on the farm. The planning, effort and hard work that go into attaining that goal are fun for us. It’s a fantastic feeling to know that you’re in the right place making a product that you believe in.”
To learn more about Devine Garden’s LLC visit: www.devine-gardens.com