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Cash cropping worms: How the Lumbricus terrestris bait worm market operates in Ontario, Canada

Steckley, Joshua
Geoderma 2020 v.363 pp. 114128
Lumbricus terrestris, alfalfa, crops, dairy farming, earthworms, ecosystem engineers, environmental exposure, farmers, fishermen, harvesting, immigration, industry, interviews, labor, leasing, manure spreading, reduced tillage, remediation, soil, soil fertility, world markets, Europe, Ontario
Anecic earthworms such as Lumbricus terrestris are ecosystem engineers whose impacts on soil fertility and remediation have been extensively researched. The majority of L. terrestris used for such research and practical remediation applications are procured through the largely unknown bait worm market that serves freshwater recreational fishermen across North America and Europe. Some earthworm researchers have questioned the use of these bait worms for research and soil inoculations because of their untraceable origins, unknown environmental exposures and growing conditions, as well as the sustainability of harvesting practices. However, there has been no recent study of this unique industry and how it hand-picks hundreds of millions of L. terrestris worms annually from a single region in southwestern Ontario. This paper provides a detailed description of how land and labour are currently organized to supply the world market for the valuable L. terrestris, commonly known as the “Canadian Nightcrawler” bait worm. Based on 59 semi-structured depth interviews, the findings show there are an estimated 500 to 700 million worms picked annually from farmer fields that stretch between Toronto and Windsor, Ontario. Dairy farms in particular have emerged as de facto L. terrestris production sites because of their perennial alfalfa crops, heavy manure application, and reduced tillage practices. This has made L. terrestris the most lucrative crop in the region with many farmers leasing land to worm-picking operations for over $1000 CND per year ($750 USD/ €685) — approximately four times the regional rental rates. Worm-pickers have historically been recent immigrants to Ontario with the majority of current pickers coming from Vietnam. Worm pickers make $20CND ($15 USD, €13.50) per thousand worms, and can pick over 20,000 worms per night in optimal field conditions (moisture, temperature, wind, moonlight). The piece-rate wages tend to reward speed and efficacy with some pickers capable of making over $600 in a single night. This peculiar arrangement between dairy farmers, soils, and worm pickers opens avenues for socio-economical, agronomical and ecological studies of commercial L. terrestris harvesting.