MANILA, January 22, 2005 (STAR) By Rose G. De La Cruz  - The Chinese call them "angels of the earth". They just might become angels in your backyard.

Backed by a P300,000 grant from the Ford Motor Co. (Phils)., the Center for Renewable Resources and Energy Efficiency and Palawan Organic Farm will be using these angels called earthworms to help solve the solid waste problem of Metro Manila, which produced 0.597 kilos of waste per capita per day in 2003, 60% of which was biodegradable. The project involves the setting up of demonstration sites in two households, two barangays, two churches, two schools and in the Quezon Memorial Circle.

"The earthworm is truly natureís gift to us. They happily eat our garbage so there should be no cost to feed them. They require very little care and attention. As long as they are happy (which means a moist and dark place and plenty of food), they go on and on, producing more and more earthworms, eating more and more garbage and producing more and more organic fertilizer" ," said Palawan Organic Farm founder Antonio de Castro.

At Palawan Organicís store in Metro Manila, organic fertilizer produced by earthworms called vermicast sells for P25 a kilo or P600 for a 50-kilo sack. Buyers include orchid growers and weekend farmers.

The store also sells a starterís kit called "an earthworm sanctuary". Priced at P2,200, the kit covers an hourís worth of training on vermiculture and the purchase of two plastic containers (the size of fruit crates), one stacked on top of the other. The top crate contains pre-treated leaves with between 700 and 1,000 sexually active three-month old earthworms. The bottom crate contains dried leaves that be processed for the next cycle.

Between the two crates is a plastic screen, which enables the earthworms to migrate by themselves to the bottom crate within three days after they have consumed all the leaves in the top crate.

"Thatís when the bottom crate becomes the top crate and the former top crate is filled up with food for the next cycle, which happens in a short period of time. We use the African nightcrawler from west Africa, which eats twice its weight every day and reproduces seven earthworms every week. Thatís almost an exponential rate of increase," said de Castro.

Organic farming

The operational base of Palawan Organic Farm is a 0.4-hectare farm in barangay Bakaw-Bakwa, Puerto Princesa in Palawan, which produces between 10 and 15 kilos of fresh lettuce weekly. These are air-freighted to Manila and sold at P200 to P250 a kilo. The farm also grows other vegetables such as tomatoes and eggplants as well as herbs such as cilantro and basil.

"With the use of vermicast made up of a 50-50 mixture of shredded rice straw and manure, our production cycle is only 30 to 35 days from the time we transplant the seed to the time we harvest. If we used chemical fertilizers, the cycle would have been 45 days," said de Castro. "Our recommended application is one part fertilizer for every three parts of soil."

Agronomical studies show that earthworm-produced fertilizer is richer in plant nutrient than the soil, containing five times more nitrogen, seven times more phosphorus, 11 times more potassium, three times more exchangeable magnesium, and 1-1/2 times more calcium. Earthworm casting also contains a high percentage of humus, which helps soil particles form into clusters that create channels for the passage of air and improve the soilís capacity to hold water.

"My lack of agriculture background is a blessing. I had an open mind about learning vermiculture as a business. Three years ago, I attended a workshop conducted by Rafael Guerrero, director of the Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Resources Development, who gave each one of us a bag of worms to propagate or use. I initially used my bag to feed the crabs that the Center for Renewable Resources and Energy Efficiency was raising as a livelihood project," de Castro.

The NGO and Palawan Organic Farm have since found better use for earthworms.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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