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Dekker family follows environmental farm rules

by David Meyer

MOOREFIELD - When it comes to determining what is good and bad about farmland, a family from just northwest of here has a reliable indicator - the humble dew worm.

That worm serves as a metaphor for environmental conditions and it even suggests social implications for immigrants, reflects high gas prices and can indicate to farmers they might be using too much or the wrong type of cattle feed.

The dew worm, surprisingly, is not even native to North America, according to Dirk Dekker, the owner and operator of Country Bait.

As an immigrant himself, Dekker knows a few things about a business he has been involved with since 1986. He moved to Canada from the Netherlands and shortly after got into pig farming. It was a social indicator of those days that he soon decided he did not enjoy the ups and downs of the pork market and began looking around for other ways to make a living.

It was also in those days that scam artists were touting African worms for the bait industry but, being careful, he checked with Agriculture Canada and learned he could make more money picking dew worms. Then he found a man from Arthur who had been in the bait industry for years and was ready to retire.

So Dekker switched from pork to dew worms and never looked back.

The average dew worm sales operation is 1,000 square feet. Dekker recently completed a zone change on his property and he has two buildings that are 5,000 square feet each, and he has ten acres from which he picks his own worms. The sheds have conveyor belts, bedding boxes, styrofoam flats that contain 500 dew worms apiece, a setup for loading trucks and some areas for testing bedding.

“We’re always experimenting with bedding,” he said, citing recent trials with cardboard. “We really think we’ve got a winner. It took us a couple of years to get the formula, but we think we might have something.”

Think of it this way: the worms can actually eat the cardboard if they run out of other foods; the cardboard is clean so anglers don’t get dirty hands rooting around for a bait; and clean hands mean a cleaner boat.

Dekker chops cardboard and adds other items (a trade secret). He recycles used bait boxes from his shipping division, and he also picks up cardboard from a company in Listowel.

“Instead of more and more, we’re trying to sell differently,” he said.

Than means being sensitive to the environment, and “better fields, better pickers.”

Dekker moved his fledgling worm business west of Moorefield in the 1980s, and said with a laugh that leaving the pork industry was “probably desperation.”

His operation includes hiring worm pickers, and he said many immigrants have their first jobs picking dew worms.

Even that industry has changed. When Dekker began worms were picked at golf courses; today he will not even accept worms from them. First, the chemicals used on the grass made those worms smaller, and many of them are now black. He said a desirable worm is one that is pale or translucent. Two or three black worms in a flat of 500 might be okay, but more than 30 and the entire flat could die.

For some reason, and Dekker thinks it might be chemicals or changes to cattle feed, some entire farm fields produce black worms, which he believes are “sick.” He is toying with seeing if someone at the University of Guelph is interested in finding out why that is.

Instead of golf courses, Dekker and his son, Ryan, rent five or six fields from farmers from Moorefield to Tilsonburg - up to 20 and 30 acres. Farm owners benefit, too. What he pays can be worth up to more than the crop they harvest. Dekker calls it a second income for many of them.

In the fall, after the third cut of hay, Country Bait runs a special mower developed by his son, Ryan, over the stubble and calls in worm pickers. Dekker said clover and alfalfa are the best fields for dew worms, and Ryan noted rye grass is something they do not seem to like. He added some farmers now work worm picking into their field rotation.

It is quite a sight to see 30 or 40 people (the Dekkers hire Vietnamese pickers through an agent) on a field. Pickers tie cans to their legs, one for worms and one with sawdust, and strap lamps to their heads. Sawdust takes the worm slime off their hands so they do not miss when they pick.

Each carries plastic bags and special ties; when their cans are filled, they are emptied into the bags, tied with the distinctive tie, and left in the field until morning. Then, they go back and collect the bags and tie them to a pole they spread across their shoulders, and carry them to a collection point. Each picker is paid according to his productivity, and Dekker said grabbing someone else’s bags has led to a scrap or two over the years.

There is some lore in the bait industry that one picker collected 50,000 dew worms in a single night, but Ryan Dekker said that has never been verified and he suspects the record is lower. He noted, though, that on May 5, 30 pickers harvested 240,000 worms - and he called that “an average night.”

From the field, the worms come to the Dekkers’ storage sheds, are culled and sorted on an assembly line, placed into containers of a dozen each and then are ready to be boxed for shipping. There are hundreds of flats in the cooling sheds.

Dirk Dekker said 80% of all the dew worms sold to the United States come from southwestern Ontario, and he credits the large amount of clover and alfalfa farmers for that. The Dekkers also harvest in the spring if they can find land that is not tilled. It is good for picking until it is plowed.

But most of the picking is done over 20 to 30 days in the fall after crops are harvested. Dekker said he has checked the cardboard-filled containers with a dozen worms and after a year they are not only alive, but lively.

Country Bait, like any farming operation, has an interest in international sales. Dekker said a few years ago American anglers bought red wigglers from Europe. They  are short and stubby.

He reasons American anglers are more experimental than Canadians, who ignore them. He brought some to Canada, and is raising them in his sheds. He ships them to the U.S., where they are snapped up by avid anglers.

There are also about one billion dew worms or, as the Americans call them, night crawlers, sent to the U.S. from Canada every year.

Dekker prefers to ship smaller lots and focus on quality.

Still, he sells about 20 million worms every year from his farm. Some go to Europe, others to Australia, but the majority go to the U.S. He also sells to bait dealers in Canada.

He experiments with the worm, too, and offers green worms. Translucent dew worms are fed a green dye, and take on that colour.

Ryan noted that, in theory, the farm could create a rainbow of colours, including a favourite fishing colour, chartreuse.

“I hear they work very well on pickerel,” he said.

Dirk Dekker said dew worm sales are often a harbinger of shifts in society. For the last ten years, “The whole bait industry is in decline.” He said there are a number of social indicators. Golf became popular, for one thing.

“Society is changing,” he said. “People are not as outdoorsy as they used to be. In the last ten years ... a lot of customers we deal with are buying less worms, and minnows, too.”

The Dekkers also supply spawn, but he said that is in short supply because trout and salmon eggs are being eaten as caviar.

Still, he used to think when he retired, that would be the end of his business. But Ryan wants to work in it, and he is optimistic.

“There will always be fishermen,” Ryan said.

Keeping an eye on the dew worms and their social indicators will probably show him the way.

 

May 27, 2011

 
 

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