Got milk cows? Get worms, make compost and sustain your dairy farm
By adding value to the non-dairy output of their dairy herd, Orner Farms has increased profitability despite abysmal milk prices. Composting led to vermicomposting which led to compost tea production, expanding potential markets through good relationships, excellent production standards and innovation.

By Dan Brannen Jr.

Farm at a Glance

Orner Farms
Rockton, PA

Location: West-central Pennsylvania, about 50 miles west of State College.

Key people: Frank Orner and cousins Ross and David Orner

Size: 425 acres that has been in the family since 1928.

Crops and Enterprises: crops for dairy cattle; on-farm compost production, vermicomposting, red worms for vermicomposting and related products and supplies.

Marketing: on farm, local retail, and mail order for compost products and compost supplies; bulk ship compost to heavy users

Flow-through bins built around worms’ ways


Logo © Orner Farms

Specialized bins make great vermicompost while minimizing the number of worms that turn up in the finished product. The Orners start by loading compost in the tops of their 5- x 16-foot and 5- x 40-foot bins. One million red worms distributed between the two bins then work their way up to the fresh compost on top, which is best maintained at temperatures between 60° and 80° F.

The finished vermicompost is then removed from the bottom of the bins, far from where most of the worms are feeding.

For details on the models the Orners sell, check www.wormwigwam.com

For more information

Orner enterprise links:

Quiet Creek Herb Farm
www.quietcreekherbfarm.com

Ecological Landscaping Association (ELA)
www.ela-eco
landscapingassn.org

Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA)
www.pasafarming.org

Posted February 22, 2005: When Frank Orner returned from college in the late 1970s to work on his family’s dairy farm in Rockton, Pennsylvania, milk prices were about the same as they are today. Yet Orner Farms (www.ornerfarms.com) still milks 100 cows twice daily, and the farm is profitable enough to pass on to the next generation.


Photo courtesy of Orner Farms
“We picked the right time to diversify. . . Milk prices have dropped since then, but diversification helps us weather the fluctuations. That’s really the goal of diversity. Hopefully one thing is up when the other is down.”

“We picked the right time to diversify,” says Frank, thinking back to 1998, when he and cousins Ross and David Orner began making compost to sell from their 425-acre operation. “Milk prices have dropped since then, but diversification helps us weather the fluctuations. That’s really the goal of diversity. Hopefully one thing is up when the other is down.”

Today compost sales are way up for Orner Farms, but in 1998, Frank was wondering whether the farm that grandfather A. L. Orner started in 1928 had a future. Raised by a farm family that encouraged creative thinking, Frank attended an extension horticultural program that year looking for ideas, and he met a flower grower from southern New York.

“This grower laid four inches of compost, tilled it in, laid another four, germinated the flowers, and then laid another four inches of compost,” recalls Frank. “His biggest problem was finding compost.”

Frank returned home with thoughts of using the farm’s bedded pack to make compost for the flower grower. Then Frank learned that his brother, Rusty, wanted compost for his landscaping business and Quiet Creek Herb Farm, an organic CSA and herb farm. It is located about 25 miles west of Orner Farms in Brookville, Jefferson County. Rusty was using mushroom compost in his landscaping business, but some of his customers did not like the treated lumber and arsenic in it, and Rusty was looking for darker compost for a nicer appearance.

“Rusty said ‘You make it, and I’ll buy it,’” says Frank. “That’s an important part of diversification. Find your market before your start.”

With a starter market in hand, Frank and his cousins learned as much about composting as they could by reading manuals and doing research on the Internet. Then it came time to learn by doing, with much trial-and-error. Meanwhile, they stuck a sign out front and sold compost to local gardeners, who liked it better than raw manure because it was ready to use, with less smell. Marketing that first year consisted of the sign, word-of-mouth referrals by satisfied customers, and retail placement in Rusty’s on-farm store at Quiet Creek.

“We had to decide,” says Frank, “are we going to run this farm into the ground, or still have something at the end?”

That was enough to sell all the compost Orner Farms made that year—about 60 cubic yards. Yet it was not enough to sustain A. L. Orner’s legacy for future generations, so the Orners were at a crossroads.

“We had to decide,” says Frank, “are we going to run this farm into the ground, or still have something at the end?”

Choosing many strands instead of mega-dairy

In need of business advice, Frank and his cousins turned to Pennsylvania Dairy Stakeholders. PDS offered business planning assistance that, through cost-sharing, allowed the Orners to afford a consultant for developing a business plan. After hiring the consultant and then assembling a team that included their farm accountant, the Orners sat down to hear their options.

“One thing the consultant said was we could expand the size of our operation to 300 milking cows,” recalls Frank. “I said, ‘But if prices continue to stagnate, we eventually have to expand to 500, right?’ That’s a vicious cycle.”

Their second option was to keep their herd the same size, inject it with rBST, and milk three times a day. Although he personally thinks rBST is safe, Frank did not want to go that route.

In the end, diversification was the option most attractive to the Orners, for environmental and social reasons.

“We had enough land in our Nutrient Management Plan to take all our manure,” says Frank. “Still, we are the major operator in the watershed that serves the reservoir for the city of DuBois, which has one of the highest quality water supplies in the state. If there’s a problem with that water, they’re coming to look here first.”

"The consultant said we could expand the size of our operation to 300 milking cows,” recalls Frank. “I said, ‘But if prices continue to stagnate, we eventually have to expand to 500, right?’ That’s a vicious cycle.”

The Orners were determined to farm in an environmentally friendly fashion and equally determined to keep the farm a family-scale operation. They decided to continue diversification with composting, and to explore the possibility of raising red worms for sale to vermicomposters. In vermicomposting, composting ingredients and environmental conditions are managed to allow worms to enhance the decomposition process. The results are more worms and a high-quality, nutrient rich composted product called vermicompost.

At the same time, the Orners also increased milk production by shifting their cropping strategy to include more corn silage and less grain corn and hay silage. The result was a healthier diet for the cows and a better net return per acre of cropland.

Send in the worms

As the Orners thought about raising red worms in 1999, the Clearfield County Solid Waste Authority hosted a presentation on vermicomposting, which was part of the county’s waste management program. Ross who was chairman of the county’s conservation board invited the conservation district office to talk about flow-through bins for vermicomposting. These structures allow worms to do their decomposing work as they naturally move upwards through the material, allowing the processed vermicompost to be harvested with minimal loss of worms.

“We asked, can the worms use cow manure?” says Frank. “The conservation district representative thought so, and agreed to do a feasibility study. The study was a success, and it gave us a projection of how much vermicompost we could make with the amount of composted manure we had. Those projections said vermicompost would be more profitable than regular compost, and would make the farm a sustainable operation.”

Vermicomposting was a natural extension for the Orners, because it requires a lot of the equipment they already had for making compost. For the flow-through bin itself, they started with a 5- x 16-foot- unit from EPM, Inc. (See box for bin details.) The bin worked so well, making a couple hundred pounds of vermicompost a week, that the Orners became retailers for EPM equipment, adding another profit center to their farming operation.

Then it came time to market the vermicompost, a product that Frank says was already common out West but was new to customers in the East. Their initial strategy was to load the stuff into trucks and take it to greenhouses, which they thought would be their biggest customers. While the greenhouses bought some to sell with their plants, they really wanted a ready potting mix for use in greenhouse operations.


Photo courtesy of Orner Farms
Then it came time to market the vermicompost, a product that Frank says was already common out West but was new to customers in the East . . . Gardeners ended up being the biggest customers for the vermicompost, at least in the beginning.

Gardeners ended up being the biggest customers for the vermicompost, at least in the beginning. Frank says the key to those sales is making a quality product and not skimping on marketing appearance. Orner Farms calls its product “Worm Wonder” and sells it under an attractive label that features a happy worm poking out of a pasture.

As for quality, Worm Wonder consistently gets excellent results in microbiology tests conducted by Soil Foodweb Inc. labs in New York and Oregon. (SFI analysis focuses on soil organisms as the primary source of plant nutrition.) Combining a demonstrably superior product with good working relationships in the field can be a strong marketing tool itself, says Frank.

Homebrew for plants

Today Orner Farms’ biggest vermicompost customers are those buying it to make compost tea, a highly concentrated microbial solution produced by extracting, then culturing, beneficial microbes from the vermicompost. When sprayed on crops, the “tea” reduces the use of harmful and expensive pesticides and fungicides. The tea covers the plants with colonies of beneficial bacteria and fungi, which reduces harmful micro-organisms from getting a foothold.

“An organic farmer went to Paul Wagner at the Soil Foodweb and asked, ‘Why are my tomatoes dying?’ Paul said, ‘You have a root-feeding nematode, and you need to get some of Orner’s vermicompost to make compost tea.’”

In 2002, Frank and his cousins bought a compost tea brewer from EPM to make tea for their own crops. Now compost tea sales are another component in the income streams feeding Orner Farms.

“Local people have bought the tea and are very pleased with the results on their roses and vegetable gardens,” says Frank. “But the tea is produced in an aerobic environment, so it needs to be used within twelve hours.”

Customers buying Worm Wonder to make tea or to use as compost are located across the continental United States. The Mirage hotel and casino in Las Vegas even purchased a ton of vermicompost for landscaping. People are brewing compost tea for use on row crops, organic golf courses, vineyards, and lawns. At Quiet Creek Herb Farm, Rusty uses his brother’s products in high tunnels and received a USDA SARE grant to study the profitability of compost versus vermicompost on the farm.

One of the challenges the Orners face is assembling a distribution network for selling outside their home area. With retailers doubling their sales of Worm Wonder year after year, the market for vermicompost is growing greatly in the East.

“Building and maintaining good relationships is an important part of this,” says Frank. “That goes all the way back to my grandfather before he was farming. That’s how he ran his business.”

The Orners have reached many of their customers by attending conferences and workshops, such as those held by the Ecological Landscapers Association and the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. Active involvement in local organizations leads to local sales and customers.

“Building and maintaining good relationships is an important part of this,” says Frank. “That goes all the way back to my grandfather before he was farming. That’s how he ran his business.”

Dan Brannen is a freelance writer now living in Sante Fe, New Mexico, happily exploring the seasonal foods of the high desert ecosystem.