CEREALS was becoming a hard business for a small operator. So the Holgreaves family went into worms.
This story started with a press release about Christopher Holgreaves taking part in a charity run for Diabetes UK, which described him as a “worm farmer from Selby”.
Worm farmer? Well, there is a bit more to it but worms are, so to speak, the bedrock of the business. Actual location is Baxter Hall Farm, Long Drax, between Selby and Goole.
It used to be at the heart of 120 arable acres. But 120 acres got to look smaller and smaller in the context of the competition and in 1997, Christopher’s parents, John and Yvonne, picked up on a newspaper ad for farmers to supply worms for an industrial composting operation.
It didn’t begin very well. They had the worm beds in a field and some of the worms would get out and some of the field wildlife would get in and crows and moles soon cottoned on to the nearest thing they would ever find to a free lunch. Also, there were problems getting money out of the customer.
They started calling up angling shops all over Yorkshire.
Christopher, now 27, tried a geography degree at Sheffield University and various office jobs. By the time he decided to return to the farm, most of the 120 acres had been sold and everything was riding on the worms. He is now manager of Willy Worms.
His dad works with him on the farming and his mum does the local deliveries and they all pitch in to keep up with the mail orders. In the summer, when demand peaks, they need casual help too.
In the course of building contacts with Yorkshire tackle shops, they found a dealer who extended their customer base into Scotland. And it gradually became national. They also found new customers in the composting business – but that was a mixed blessing. The demand reflected a growing awareness of the relationship between worms and compost which had the side-effect of starting a lot of little backyard businesses.
“They go into the shops and say they can supply worms for £1 a kilo less than you can and the shop says great,” Chris sums up. “We have been through quite a lot of that. But eventually, they realise they are not actually making any money and they give up, or the shop wants worms and they haven’t got any.”
Willy Worms survived by becoming more and more professional. Rearing the worms indoors, in boxes, started off in the garage but eventually required two large insulated sheds. The boxes, eight foot by four foot of tannalised timber, six inches deep, made for handling and stacking, cost £40 each and the business needed 500 for last year’s production of 12 tonnes of dendrobaena worms. That’s close to 10 million worms. Wholesale price is a trade secret but the shops sell them at £15-£18 a kilo and mail order prices from Willy Worms work out around that.
The boxes are filled with peat – 10-12 lorryloads a year – which is mixed with food for the worms. By trial and error, the Holgreaves found their way to a standard laying mix for hens, which does the job nicely. The worms work their way through the mix and turn it into worm casts, high in nitrogen and potash. At one point, Willy Worms had Soil Association accreditation for it as an organic fertiliser but did not sell enough to make the licence worthwhile.
They have piles of it waiting for offers. Meanwhile, the worms produce another boxful every four weeks, on their way to being fully fat at 16-18 weeks after hatching. Also, when they feel like it, which tends to be around September but is only gradually becoming predictable, they will lay eggs, which are kept to kick off new generations. Most garden earthworms lay them too deep to be noticed but dendrobaenas naturally live in the top layers of humus in woodland.
They do best at around 18C, which means some heating and some cooling. Ventilation is also essential, to avoid infestations of tiny spiders known as red mites. Get them and the box is finished.
In summer, feeding takes most of three days a week and emptying and refilling boxes takes another two. It has been hard work. But things are looking up. The turning point, says Chris, was adding to the range, last year, with imported worms – lobs, from Canada, for game fish, and tigers and reds, to mix in with the dendrobaenas for coarse fishing – and a range of ground baits and hook baits from Poland, branded as Starfish products. The farm is also making dendrobaenas in an almost-luminous green, using a dietary supplement from Scandinavia. The website was relaunched to reflect all this and this summer looks like being the busiest yet, despite a couple of years of slow trade throughout the angling business, caused by hard winters and stretched wallets.
“I’d like to go fishing myself,” says Chris, “but I never get the time. I’ve got people who try everything out for me and they feed back on the results. And the customers are beginning to come back because they are satisfied.” One thing he has learned – it is not true, as commonly believed, that a worm cut in half will come back as two worms.
“It has 10 hearts,” he can tell us. “But the main one is in the middle lump and that is the bit that will survive.”
The family farming instinct survives in the same way. On the remaining few acres, they run a handful of pigs, for themselves and a few city-based friends who have bought shares; some free-range laying hens; and a range of vegetable plots. But Chris Holgreaves is not going to argue with “worm farmer of Selby”.
He did the Edinburgh marathon in 4.25 last year and is looking for sponsors when he runs the Hull 10k on May 15 for Diabetes UK, in support of a neighbour’s daughter. See www.justgiving.com/Laurajayne14/
For the rest, see www.willyworms.co.uk or call 01757 618549.