Joan O’Connor: Worm wrangler and local food facilitator

By on Feb 22, 2016 in Stories | 0 comments

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As far as she knows, Joan O’Connor is the only worm wrangler in town.

“How many worm farmers do you know in New Hampshire?” she asked Thursday.

O’Connor, a 64-year-old Henniker resident and businesswoman behind “Joan’s Famous Composting Worms,” has been selling crawlers for two decades. It all began when she bought her first worms in 1992 at Shaker Village’s Herb Day after researching better ways to recycle food scraps during New England winters.

“I was growing frustrated with the outdoor frozen compost piles,” O’Connor said.

She was thrilled with the prospect of an indoor composting system, and went for it. Over the years, O’Connor has learned all the tricks. She explained as she poured out a bucket of worms, newspaper and dirt onto a plastic sheet in her living room Thursday.

Joan O'Connor holds out some of her "famous" composting worms Thursday. O'Connor said composting with worms has been one of the ways she's simplified her life.   (ELODIE REED/ Monitor staff) - ELODIE REED | Concord Monitor

Joan O’Connor holds out some of her “famous” composting worms Thursday. O’Connor said composting with worms has been one of the ways she’s simplified her life. (ELODIE REED/ Monitor staff)

“You want them to be happy, fed and having sex,” O’Connor explained. She pointed out proof that this was the case for her bucketful of worms: a cocoon, or the small, bubble-like sack that holds five baby worms. Worms are hermaphroditic, or have both sexual organs, and produce the cocoons on their own.

The dirt on composting

To keep the worms healthy and thriving, O’Connor said temperature is important. “They want to be between 60 and 80 degrees,” she said. While people may want to put their worms in the basement – which is usually around 55 degrees – O’Connor said they become a little less active in the cooler temperature.

“That’s why it’s good to try and find somewhere in your living space,” she said.

Once they have a spot, O’Connor said the next thing is to arrange their bin correctly. She recommends a Rubbermaid bin and drilling a couple of holes for drainage (with a tray or bowl underneath). Inside, O’Connor says to put in ripped up newspaper, peat moss, your worms, more peat moss, and then more newspaper.

“It’s like a lasagna effect,” she said.

Lastly, put a T-shirt or screen and secure it on the top of the tub . . . or else.

“For the first few weeks, worms are escape artists,” O’Connor said. “All of a sudden you’re going to have 20 worms crawling across the carpet.”

Some of Joan O'Connor's Famous Composting Worms sit in her Henniker home Thursday.  (ELODIE REED/ Monitor staff) - ELODIE REED | Concord Monitor

Some of Joan O’Connor’s Famous Composting Worms sit in her Henniker home Thursday. (ELODIE REED/ Monitor staff)

The last piece to the composting worm puzzle is of course to feed the worms. Non-meat organic waste like vegetables, fruits, eggshells, tea bags, coffee grounds, paper coffee filters, and shredded garden waste all work, and, O’Connor noted, should be put down with the worms – not on top of the bin. Without digging down, O’Connor said fruit flies and rotting food smells are likely.

The end product? Sustainable, indoor food disposal, and after about six months, worm castings (poop) that make for rich, chemical-free fertilizer.

“Stop putting this stuff into your septic system,” O’Connor said.

She added, “You can be as neurotic as you want or you can neglect them and practically kill them.” Noting that she was closer to the latter as more of a facilitator and then let-them-be type, O’Connor said that with the right inputs, worms will pretty much do their own thing.

“These are workers,” she said.

A facilitator

Soon after O’Connor became involved in the worm world, she also joined the Henniker Farmer’s Market. There she began her vermicomposting business.

“I started selling them in these little glass jars,” she said. “It just caught on. So many people were amused by it.”

Though she was busy selling worms in person and by mail order, O’Connor said it’s not exactly lucrative. “If anything, I lose money at it,” she said. She’s since downsized that business, and is mostly interested in answering people’s questions and helping them get started.

“It just was more of a passion,” she said.

O’Connor has found another financial opportunity in farmers markets, however, and managed the Manchester Farmers Market for several years before beginning one in partnership with Charlie Cole of Cole Gardens in Concord in 2010. That relationship ended in 2011 when Cole took over the Winter Farmers Market.

O’Connor has since begun a new winter farmers market in Tilton, where she held a Saturday market between December and March for four years in a 10,000-square-foot space provided by AutoServ. She said that at its height, between 1,200 and 1,600 visitors came to see her 50 vendors, whom she also helps with things like getting on WMUR’s “Cooks Corner.”

“I call it, agri-penuer,” O’Connor said of herself. “I do things that opens doors for my vendors.”

Joan O'Connor stands in the doorway of the one-room schoolhouse she lives in in Henniker. O'Connor began simplifying her life 20 years ago and now focuses on composting with worms, helping run a winter's farmers market and living green.   (ELODIE REED/ Monitor staff) - ELODIE REED | Concord Monitor

Joan O’Connor stands in the doorway of the one-room schoolhouse she lives in in Henniker. O’Connor began simplifying her life 20 years ago and now focuses on composting with worms, helping run a winter’s farmers market and living green. (ELODIE REED/ Monitor staff)

This year, however, AutoServ was able to find a permanent winter lessee for the space, leaving the Tilton Winter Farmers Market out in the cold.

“I’m kind of frustrated that I couldn’t get another building this year,” O’Connor said. In addition to losing her source of income, she said she’s sad for all of the farmers and producers she helped make sales during the slower winter months. O’Connor is still looking for a new space, and for help from the state of New Hampshire or anyone else.

“I want to stay in the Tilton area because it’s sort of a food desert – that’s why (the market) was so successful,” she said. “My vendors are so loyal. Wherever I go – they’re on board.”

When asked why she spends time on difficult, sometimes financially insoluble tasks like worm-farming and farmers market organizing, O’Connor said it’s about her passion to encourage less wasteful, greener living, and to ensure local food startups’ success.

“I can’t get away from it,” she said. “I love helping. I facilitate these things – that’s where I get my pleasure.”

To learn more about Joan’s Famous Composting Worms or the Tilton Winter Farmer’s Market, O’Connor is free to chat by phone in the evening. She can be reached at 428-3530.

(Have questions or Ag & Eats news tips, events or recipes? Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306,ereed@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @elodie_reed.)

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