Years ago, when a tractor was ploughing a field, there'd be hundreds of birds following it to get their fill of worms. Today, you wouldn't see as much as a sparrow behind a plough."
Tony Grubert is an Englishman based in west Cork with a passion for the environment. He believes that modern agriculture's reliance on petro-chemical based fertilisers is poisoning the soil's natural ecosystem.
"It gives the crop a boost for that growing season, but it is killing the worms and naturally occurring myccorhiza fungi that help plant root systems absorb nutrients from the soil," claims Grubert.
He is, of course, pushing an alternative called Celtic Gold -- it's one that has potential not just for the end-user, but also for the 40 local farmers in Cork that invested in a project that began five years ago.
"Coomhola and Borlin community groups were looking for some kind of a project that would help sustain the community and small farmers in the area just north of Bantry," he explains. They decided to focus on the vermiculture business, with the aim of adding value to the manure and slurry from the farms and creating a premium potting compost.
Local farmers were asked to buy shares at €700 each, and 40 families ended up investing €120,000. Together with a bank loan and a €100,000 grant from the local LEADER company, a total of €600,000 was sunk into the Celtic Worm Company, with Grubert at the helm as MD.
"We have two custom-built composters that are parked out on each farm for up to eight weeks at a stretch. They are filled with up to 20 tonne of manure, along with some accelerant. Then the lid is closed and we trickle air through. The manure inside heats up to 60C, which breaks down the material and any pathogens. The process only costs about €20 for the electricity."
The compost is then transferred to a 5,000sq ft industrial unit at Colomane, where it is fed into 46ft long beds that host millions of tiger worms. These aren't the same guys that you find in the soil, but you would find them in any well-rotted manure heap.
"You can't just buy these so we've had to build up colonies of them over years, but we've got to the point where we're producing about half a tonne daily of the wormcast," says Grubert.
This is the USP of the Celtic Gold product. UCC research has shown that the wormcast improves ground growth by 100pc and below ground growth by 60pc. These properties haven't been ignored in the US where vermiculture industry annual sales have hit €48m.
While Celtic Gold has only been producing their 50l (17kg) bags of their compost-wormcast mix for seven months, Grubert claims that they have yet to be refused a sale.
"Nurseries and garden centres know that this is a product that will work, even if it is retailing at three times the cost of a traditional potting compost. By law we aren't allowed call it anything other than a potting compost but there really is no comparison," states Grubert.
Farm trials are commencing on a 5ac grassland just outside Cork city, while the plant is employing five and bagging 6t of the product daily.
But what about the payback? "The farmers get €120/tonne of compost, which means that they will have their investment back within two cycles of the composter. They've also seen their 50pc shareholding in the company more than double in value already, and they'll be getting a dividend from the company in the coming years. We expect to be break-even within the next four years," predicts Grubert. Sounds like one to watch.