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School teens use red worms to change dryland subsistence farming

Updated on May 10, 2013

The Nahuelbuta National Park, Coastal Range, Chile

This is the vegetation of the areas that have enough water. Sadly, water is becoming scarce in this zone.
This is the vegetation of the areas that have enough water. Sadly, water is becoming scarce in this zone. | Source

How the project started

The scene is a secondary school (Middle and High), located in a rural Commune called Santa Juana, in the Biobio Region of Chile. As Principal of the Liceo Nueva Zelandia (New Zealand School, a Municipal school dependent on the State educational system), I received the results of a study done by the National Health Service stating that the population of that area presented a higher than average death rate for young children up to 6 years of age, due to respiratory illnesses. The same was true for the adult and elderly population, although the numbers were less alarming. The report also stated that there was a correlation between these health conditions, and the type of food that was consumed by the inhabitants, in fact, the patients were undernourished, but due to an imbalance in their food categories. In short, they ate too much starchy food and too few vegetables and fruit.

The other factor, of course, was the generally inadequate living conditions, i.e. poor quality housing, etc. related to the low income level of the population.

Those of us who were more involved with our community felt that we should be contributing towards an improvement in these conditions, and as we could not do much about the housing situation, we decided to concentrate on the production and consumption of vegetables and fruit.

Rural living in central Chile

Hilly countryside and living facilities in Santa Juana, Chile
Hilly countryside and living facilities in Santa Juana, Chile | Source

Discovering some basic facts

We started off by researching the reasons for the food consumption imbalance, and for this we did an informal survey of some family groups. We discovered that for families living in isolated hilly locations, the easiest thing to do was to provide their families with foodstuff for some weeks,and that this was achieved by stocking up on rice, spaghetti, potatoes and flour. Add some eggs and meat from their farmyard animals and they would be able to keep from starving! Their main life sustainer seemed to be home baked bread.

We started a campaign to introduce home grown vegetables and fruit, and stumbled on the (for us) hidden factors of poor soil and lack of water, among other difficult conditions related to the climate and topography of the area.

Obviously, more and diverse research was going to be necessary if we really wanted to make a difference through our role as teachers in that community.

We were also faced with a very strong resistance to change, on the basis of "this is the way my father always did things, and his father before him". In addition, the community as a whole did not think much of the state educational system, and as teachers belonging to that system, we were obviously suspect.

At this point we should have given up, but those kids were still getting ill due to their low defences against several common respiratory illnesses, so we slogged on, with very little support from our local authorities of that time, and no visible means of obtaining some necessary resources.

Identifying the necessary research

The families we talked to were very polite, but very definite: they were the ones who really knew about their environment and living conditions. As teachers working in the rarified atmosphere of the school, we were obviously just plain ignorant!

We admitted it! They were right!

The majority of the teachers working in the School were urbanites who traveled from the city of Concepciòn to Santa Juana every day, a distance of about 50 kilometers. With all the good will in the world, we really did not know much about living conditions up in the hills surrounding the small urban center of Santa Juana where the principal schools are located

Our starting list of "things to do", was defined as follows:

1.- Learn about "resistance to change".

2.- Learn about the conditions of soil and water in the area.

3.- Find a simple, attractive activity that would go off with a bang, and get it done quickly!

4.- Use the results of the activity mentioned above, to act as a lever for other important concepts and changes.

5.- Start working now! And prepare to continue indefinitely!

Growing strawberries as an impact activity

Vertical growing was chosen for this activity, due to the difficult conditions of the soil and the shortage of water. Vertical tubes were made with black lay flat poly tubing, sufficiently wide enough to accommodate several strawberry plants.

The teachers designed a simple structure using poles that were high enough to install a good length of tubing, but not so high that the users would have difficulty providing water through the top, by hand.

The black poly tubes were suspended from the top of the poles, and filled with compost. Slits were cut in the plastic at irregular heights that formed pockets through which the young plants were introduced. The plants were set to hang over the edge of the plastic.

The strawberries grew very successfully, and we allowed the students to harvest and eat them. They were delighted!

Our "agents of change" then went home and installed similar structures, so as to grow their own strawberries.

The overall image of the teachers improved enormously, we were no longer so ignorant! We found it much easier to communicate with our community after this success.

There are several web-pages that show something similar, and a very interesting one is the blog-spot Agrostart. The original is in Spanish, but the page provides a readable translation and some illustrations.

There is another web-page that shows how to plant the strawberries in a more sophisticated container called a "strawberry bag" Although this is not something we could have had access to, it is interesting to review this page, as it includes a very good video.

Clay soil

Eroded clay hillside.
Eroded clay hillside. | Source

Description of the conditions of the soil in the area

The results of our research were as follows:

  1. The Commune of Santa Juana covers an expanse of 731.2 km2 (about 282 sq.miles), and over 80% of this terrain is hilly.
  2. The Land Capability Classification of the US Department of Agriculture groups soils into eight classes, according to the plants and crops that can be produced regularly.
  3. Of these eight, the classes 1, 2, and 3 have arable soils, with few limitations for planting.
  4. Classes 4 to 8 are in general, non arable, and their limitations increase as the numbers rise.
  5. The large expanse of hilly terrain that constitutes the typical profile of the Commune, has Class 6 and Class 7 soils, with Class 7 predominating. This is the area where the approximately 7 thousand rural inhabitants of the Commune, live, and send their youngsters to schools such as our "New Zealand School".
  6. These lands were once "the granary of the Pacific", exporting products all along the coast as far north as California. Due to overuse and inconvenient practices, the soil is now extremely degraded.
  7. As the covering vegetation began to disappear through lack of nutrients, erosion set in and destroyed the soil cover even more.
  8. This area is subject to intense rain fall in winter, and very high temperatures in summer. Due to its proximity to the sea, there is no snow in this area, but the temperatures do drop to freezing. In summer the heat can rise to around 35º Centigrade.
  9. The soil is now mainly clay with a thin covering of low shrubs. As the degradation process progressed, and also due to the changes in the climate, water has become more and more scarce.
  10. The land is extremely subdivided into small holdings. The experts refer to this area as "interior dry-lands", because they face the Central Valley, as opposed to the "coastal dry-lands", which face the ocean towards the West. Both types are on the side slopes of the Coastal Range, which runs North to South, and in the proximity of Santa Juana, is called Nahuelbuta Range.
  11. The smallholdings where the teenage students of the "New Zealand School" live, just barely maintain the families that live on them, with some small surplus production which they sell or barter. We are, therefore, in the presence of a quite severe form of subsistence farming.

This then, is the background scene for our attempts to introduce some lifestyle changes.

Red Wigglers

Red Wiggler Worms in kitchen scraps
Red Wiggler Worms in kitchen scraps | Source

Raising red worms and using worm castings to improve the soil

The solution we arrived at, was to train our teenage students to install worm beds, reproduce the worms, harvest the castings and incorporate this rich compost into the soil surrounding their homes.

The type of worm we chose, was the Eisenia Foetida, known as Red Wiggler. We obtained a donation through a friendly vet, of a small quantity of pure bred worms of this kind, which we had to learn to install and multiply. Our students were very interested right from the start, and helped in every way they could.

We carried out small "controlled" experiments, such as planting lettuce seeds in flower pots, with three kinds of soil: (1) poor quality barren clay like soil; (2) composted vegetation from beneath the trees; (3) a home made mix with a high quantity of worm humus. The difference in growth of the lettuce was extremely obvious, ranging from practically zero to enormous lettuce in the pot number (3). The students were very impressed, and the entire school community began extolling the advantages of worm compost to anybody who cared to listen.

Now all we had to do was to convince the adult inhabitants up in the hills, probably the most difficult step in the process.

In order to have all possible answers ready, we experimented with very rustic worm beds, simple structures mainly enclosed with wood. We used household scraps and farmyard castings for food, and we offered to donate a handful of worms, a thermometer and some cheap products for testing Ph, to any group who agreed to install the worms on their properties.

Here is where our teenage "agents of change" played a vital role: we set up teams who volunteered to travel to the rural holdings to install the first beds, and also to instruct on their maintenance. We provided each group with an assessment check list, to be filled out by the adult owners of the chosen plots. They had previously cleared a place near their houses where they could easily provide the worm beds with water to keep them moist.

The adults, all members of some students' family, had to assess the behaviour of the volunteers by ticking the check list on questions about effort, politeness, willingness to explain, etc. These results would later be included in the students' school reports.

To our great relief and delight, everything worked!

Some project results

Our initial objective was to motivate rural families to eat more fruit and vegetables. Through our efforts, we did make a difference, although not a very substantial one. The most important result was preparing the inhabitants to be more amenable to various projects about healthy eating that were later implemented by different government institutions, as these topics became more and more frequent world-wide.

From another point of view, our results were spectacular:

  • We gained support from official authorities to start a school curriculum based on forestry and agricultural courses.
  • We obtained substantial government funding, by competing for these funds through various official project lines.
  • In this manner, we set up a small farming enterprise, complete with small tractors and various farm implements.
  • Well equipped science laboratories were installed, as well as computer equipment for about 80 simultaneous users.
  • We designed and installed a semi-automated green-house, with sufficient space for 80 users, of which half were involved in forestry nurseries and the other half researched the production of vegetables and ornamental flowers
  • Most important of all, a completely new school was built, to replace the rather precarious wooden building the School had been using for over 40 years.
  • In addition to the necessary classrooms, the new school facilities include an area for weekly boarders, with dormitories, kitchen and dining quarters for 240 students.
  • Last but not least, some of the graduate students went on to set up their own small business, and now produce worm castings which they sell to forestry nurseries and other growers from the region.

Installing a worm bed in a smallholding


Final considerations

  • The red worm, or Red Wiggler, an apparently humble little creature, can be anything but humble!
  • Changes in rural communities take a long time and a lot of patience. This report spans a period of more than 12 years.
  • Teen students can be excellent "agents of change", all that is necessary is to encourage them to participate.
  • Educational systems and schools have an important role to play in rural communities similar to Santa Juana, Chile.
  • The work was well worth the effort.

© 2012 joanveronica (Joan Robertson)


Would you be willing to lead a project such as the one described on this article?

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    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Natacha, your visit and comment are greatly appreciated! This was certainly a fantastic project, and a really fantastic chance to actually plan it and direct it! It will be with me for ever, unforgettable. I was able to retire peacefully after the conclusion of a satisfying job! Thanks again, and I hope to see you around!

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      This is so cool! What a fantastic, impactful project. Thank you for sharing your story with the HP community - it was a really interesting, uplifting hub.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Peggy, many thanks for your very welcome visit and comments. I'm so glad you liked this Hub, it's quite one of my favorites. And I'm happy to say that manyof the students who were at school during my period as principal, are now scattered all over the place, innovating in their own ways! Several of them have opened their own worm farms, and are having quite a lot of success. We occasionally meet up on Facebook, if you will believe it! The generation gap doesn't seem to make any difference in this case! So thanks again for the comment and the share, and have a good day!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      The work you did in changing people's ideas who were resistant to change was terrific and smart since you spear-headed it with enticing the students to get involved first. Sometimes it takes a generation or more to effect change. Congratulations on your accomplishments with regard to that important work. Hopefully as those students grow into adults and have families of their own, they will continue the work you started. Up, useful, interesting votes and will share.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Dallas, many thanks for the visit and the comment they are both much appreciated! I can really confirm that the red wiggler is excellent for soil improvement. That is something that works, and all provided by Nature. I think that is the best aspect of the experiment, no artificial chemicals. Thanks again and have a good day, or night as the case may be!

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi, thanks for the visit and the comment! How interesting to read about your experiences in Brazil! That is one huge complex country! I will be reading your work as it appears, I enjoy your challenge and what you are trying to achieve.

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 5 years ago from Brazil

      We see much of the same attitude here in rural Brazil. Their father used a hoe and therefore they will use a hoe. We have shown them which of our tools will do a better job but as soon as we walk away, it is back to the hoe.

      Erosion is a problem in this area as well. Deforestation for charcoal, fencing, etc. has left low scrub land.

      Now industry is moving in and I am afraid the way of life here will change for many. What use to be a small fishing village is making way for tourists, industry and all the problems they bring with them. I agree, the change has to start with the young generation.

      I have put a link to this page on my duckweed page.

      Interesting article.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      I'm so glad you read this Hub and liked it! It has a similar feel to the one you wrote about slugs and "escargot", I felt very identified with that one! Thanks for the vote and the follow!

    • grandmapearl profile image

      Connie Smith 6 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      An excellently-written article about a very important issue. I do indeed applaud your efforts. To start with virtually nothing, to meet with such resistance and then to persevere and achieve such amazing results is truly inspiring. I am so glad you shared your story. It is so easy to live 'within' one's own little world, not realizing the many daily hardships that exist. Keep up your wonderful writing! Voted Up and pushed many buttons. Thank you also for your very supportive fan mail. It is very much appreciated.

    • farmloft profile image

      farmloft 6 years ago from Michigan

      I am so glad I followed you here from a comment on one of my hubs. This article is inspirational. I loved your list "from another point of view, our results were spectacular" because our plans do not always work how we expect them to, but that's sometimes a good thing! I'm voting your hub "spectacular".

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Cindy, thanks for stopping by! I really had to smile over your experience, so typically red wiggler! You have to consider that they are very "home-conscious", that is, if their home is not satisfactory, they pack up and find a place to their liking and call it home, settling down and doing their natural thing, which is eating and reproducing like mad. We lost ours one summer, due to a person's irresponsibility: did not comply with watering constantly to keep the bed moist in the baking sun. We thought we would have to start all over again, when suddenly a group of very excited students came dashing in to tell us the worms were all installed near a small natural waterfall at the very end of the agricultural area, about 2 kilometers away! That was really unbelievable! Such a long distance for such small creatures, but they managed it perfectly. And saved us a lot of trouble as well! We brought them back to their proper place and coddled them for several weeks, everybody being very anxious as to whether they would stay! Nature can be really amazing! Glad you enjoyed the story!

    • Cindy Letchworth profile image

      Cindy Letchworth 6 years ago from Midwest, U.S.A.

      Good information here. i tried raising worms once. i had limited sucess, and then when I wasn't trying a whole crop did their business in an old flower tub that had cracked at the bottom. I found the worms when i was emptying the pot over. There were probably hundreds of them. It was amazing.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      I'm so glad you liked it! I learnt a lot from the experience, as before I started directing schools in rural areas, I was such an urbanite! I had a vague idea about plants and planting, thanks to my grandmother, who kept pushing me into gardening, when I really wanted to stick my nose in a book! But I have never regretted any of the work I was involved in, it was very rewarding, and I think it made me a better person. I tend to be a perfectionist, which is hard on everybody, including myself, but my rural activities taught me to be more tolerant, and certainly widened my outlook on a lot of things, including the importance of food and what goes on before the production goes to market. I have also become more sensitive to the problem of distributing water, I think this will be critical in the not too far future. This was in part a topic in my Hub on resistance to change. My second Hub ever! Thanks again for your comment, and I will definitely see you around!

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi LoriSoard! Thank you for stopping by! I'm glad you liked it, I enjoyed writing it and remembering all our struggles. The effort was well worth it, and I certainly learnt a lot from it, especially about "placing yourself in the other's shoes", I think I am a more tolerant person now, which helps when I teach.

    • SherryDigital profile image

      Sherry Duffy 6 years ago from Here. There. Everywhere. Currently: Portland, OR

      You were definitely right to point me in the direction of this hub! It was spot on. This project is very inspiring to me. My life goal is to in some way revolutionize the food industry. I was actually in the middle of writing a post about the importance of eating anti inflammatory foods when I saw your comment and decided to check out your Hub. Thank you very much! I have been needing to read something like this and it has given me many new points to consider. I really look forward to chatting more!

      Thanks again!

    • LoriSoard profile image

      LoriSoard 6 years ago from Henryville, Indiana

      Very interesting topic and important work. I really enjoyed this. Voting up, etc.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi teaches12345! Thank you so much for your comment! I'm happy because as a fellow teacher, I think it was easy for you to identify with this experience and also to understand the effort that was put into it all. Teaching can be so rewarding!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 6 years ago

      I felt like I was reading a National Geographic segment! This is so interesting and your efforts are astounding. To be able to teach others in this fashion and make a difference is so rewarding and admirable. Thank for sharing. Voted up and interesting.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Oh, thank you so much! When I get comments like this one, I feel so motivated to write some more!

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 6 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      This hub is so interesting that I shared it.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Thank you! About water in the "interior drylands".Normally the Winter is rainy, with a lot of water, but in general nowhere to store it, so it just erodes the hills and gets lost.In Summer everything is dry. This lasts for about 6 months, depending on the ocean currents of "El Niño" and "La Niña". At the moment the entire country is suffering froma lack of water, in fact in some regions the government is moving water to the rural population in trucks. We are starting a period of "La Niña", I think, and the prospects don't look good for this year. Up in the hills, there is water, but very deep, so you would need a very deep well to come in contect with it. This fails due to lack of funds, as it would be a very technical job.

      Your idea of using grey water sounds interesting, I will look it up as soon as I get some time.

      Thank you again for your interest.

    • jonnycomelately profile image

      Alan 6 years ago from Tasmania

      Joan, I would also like to congratulate you and all your helpers. The results look so rewarding, this can be a great lift in self-esteem for all the people involved.

      Just a question on a practical aspect: You mention a shortage of water. Is this very acute at certain times of the year, or general all year round?

      I have been addressing the issue of dealing with grey water (from Kitchen, Laundry and Shower/wash basin) treatment on a small scale, so that the water can be stored without going septic and smelly, for later use in the garden. In case you are interested further, please email me in the HubPages

      Best wishes for the future of your project.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Thank you Karine, I'm glad you liked it!

    • profile image

      Karine 6 years ago

      Good article joan. What a excellent job!

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Your comment has made my day! There are so many unassuming people out there who do such a lot of fantastic work, and get no recognition from anywhere. Granted one does not work for recognition, but I think the results should be posted somewhere! I have now had the privilege of having an outsider´s view and feelings about an enterprise that involved one of these faceless, nameless teams and their efforts. Thank you so much!

    • sunbun143 profile image

      sunbun143 6 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Wow I loved this article and story of your work...especially about your teen "agents of change"...I've worked with minority urban youth before and thought my organizations helped a lot of kids, but nothing on the scale of changing an entire community, maybe even a country, as here. Excellent work and thanks for sharing it! You've got my vote for hubnugget!

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      César, it´s nice to hear from you! I´m glad you enjoyed the article!

    • profile image

      Cesar Alvial Rivera 6 years ago

      Great job, think we are so close to this town, and not knowing that these things happen, thanks Joan

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Irene, it's wonderful to receive your comment! Thank you!

    • profile image

      Irene rodriguez 6 years ago

      Congratulations Joan.

      What a great and wonderful job¡¡¡¡


    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Thank you Alexis! I had a good laugh over the last part of your comment. Stick around, there´s still a lot more to learn!

    • profile image

      Alexis Medina M. 6 years ago

      Well done Joan! After more than six years working with you, I'm still learning about you...

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Thank you Karina! I know you are on holiday, so a big thank you for commenting on my hub.

    • profile image

      karina 6 years ago

      This is an excellent you could improve the resilence capacity, We need to change the world


    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Thank you, Roberto, your opinion is important to me!

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Thank you Susana! The work was very absorbing, but it taught me a lot. It was a major experience!

    • profile image

      Roberto Navarro 6 years ago

      Good article

    • profile image

      Susana 6 years ago

      A wonderful article. Very well written and the topic is very interesting.Congratulations Joan!

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Jael, I am not the only one who works very hard and gives services to others. I think you also deerve recognition for your work at the hospital. Thank you for your comment

    • profile image

      Jael 6 years ago

      I feel lucky to meet You, because make the difference in everything You do.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      You are so right! Really, one could work forever and it would still be just a little drop in the middle of this huge continent!

    • profile image

      Sandra Saldivia 6 years ago

      Thank Joan for your interesting article!! There are a lot of town like Santa Juana inLAtinAmerica, they are little villages with a lot of unmet needs. The teacher's role is very important and if we know successful experiences we can learn about that!!

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Thank you so much! Your comment has really meant a lot! I am still feeling my way around this (for me) new adventure with writing articles, and I was thrilled by your comment. Bless you!

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 6 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      I honor you and your team for such wonderful work. Truly we need more people like you to make a difference in the world.

      Congratulations on your Hubnuggets nomination! Do visit this hub and join the Hubnuggets fun. Cheers and blessings. :)

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Thank you Marcelo, it really was hard work!

    • profile image

      Marcelo 6 years ago

      Joan, I´m really impressed about your work, because you started from one specific issue, trying to find a way to improve the health conditions of the inhabitants of Santa Juana, to develop a complex strategy to break the barrier of the resistance to change. The results after a hard work were more than successful!!. I´m so happy from people like you and your team!!. Congratulations!

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Your comment was so wonderful! Thank you.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      You are so right! Thank you for your comment!

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Yes indeed, you are so right! Thank you for your comment!

    • profile image

      earteaga 6 years ago

      Good article Joan, I think the most important issue that you face when you want to do something like this, its resistance to change by people who receive benefits.

      We are living in a world of constantly changing, its necessary to introduce this concept in children mindset.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Thank you! this is my first comment on Hubpages.

    • graveyard-rose profile image

      Heather Marie 6 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Very informative and wonderful structure! :)


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