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.
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
“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
“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
“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
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
“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
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
“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