Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about failure in vermicomposting.
Actually, off and on, I’ve thought about the subject of failure quite a bit over the past dozen or more years. It seems to be a recurring subject, one that haunts me.
The topic is troublesome, I believe, because my core belief is that this is something so extraordinarily helpful to the planet because: A) it’s already a natural process that’s been going on without human intervention for eons; B) we seem to obtain increasing amounts of evidence from scientists of the value of the end product; and C), vermicomposting is something that deserves to be successful because it is inherently the right thing to do, both for waste management (resource recovery) purposes and for improving our soils and plants. How could it not succeed?
But the question remains: Why are there so many instances of failed vermicomposting ventures?
I’ve been keeping a record of failed projects for some time. It’s not a hard thing to do. California has had a considerable number of worm farms go down the tubes, but there are instances of discontinued projects from many quarters. However, it is very difficult to track all the projects that have experienced failure. Research in the area of failed vermicomposting projects does not exist, as such. Unless the venture involved fraud, lawsuits, and drew the attention of the press, a company that quietly goes out of business is difficult to trace, after the fact.
Since the 1980s when British and American scientists really began to dig deeply into vermicomposting, the journal and magazine articles were always written optimistically. There was great hope in the future of vermicomposting’s potential. The word potential kept recurring, for over 30 years. Yet the reality, from my point of view, was not that there were more and more successful ventures, but there seemed to be contraction of this ever-nascent industry.
There have been several occasions I’ve asked, “Where’d everybody go?”
In June, 2013, I was invited to present a paper at an international scientific conference on vermicomposting in Minsk, Belarus. For my topic, I deliberately chose the subject of failure. I chose it for several reasons. First, the subject intrigued me, as it has for many years, and I wanted to attack it with a little more thought than I had been giving it. Second, I wanted to present something a little edgy, something unexpected and perhaps controversial. Third, I wanted to catch the audience off guard, to “throw ‘em a curve,” as it were. You see, as the only Americans to speak to an Eastern European group of scientists and field workers, the folks in Belarus were probably expecting to hear about how we as prosperous Americans had our “act together” and, as world leaders, could share the secrets of our success with them. Additionally, if you know anything about Russian culture, you know how competitive things can get, as in “we have the biggest [fill in the blank] in the world.” This can pertain to anything from military hardware to whatever it might be that they would like to boast about. I believe the audience was expecting to hear a presentation from an American about vermicomposting that would be about size, volumes, success, profit, and, of course, potential. This would be their frame of reference, but I deliberately chose not to play the game as expected.
Instead, I wanted to turn the subject on its head. Instead of talking about success and potential, I chose to document instances of failure. Yes, the Americans would talk about failure in vermicomposting. It was an opportunity to show humility instead of hubris. Afterward, one listener remarked, “That was depressing.” But he may have missed the point.
The title of the paper was, “Vexatious Vermicomposting: Problems Leading to Failure in Large-Scale Projects.” In the paper and accompanying power point presentation, I remarked on causes of failure. In essence, rather than putting forth the factors that would make one successful, I turned the subject on its head to say, If you do not watch out for these pitfalls, you will experience failure. My evidence in the paper and power point photos was that, sure enough, there were many instances of failure. You might say that the presentation was given as a warning, a “heads up” to those who might be over-confident. I’m still not sure how they absorbed it, if at all. The “heads up” left some scratching their heads.
No, failure is not a popular subject. And, when evidence starts to pile up like a multi-car collision during rush-hour on a crowded freeway, it can look depressing as my listener lamented. But the lesson was, Let’s learn from our failures. At the close of my presentation I was able to toss them a Russian aphorism I found and put on the screen in Cyrillic letters: “Adversity is a good teacher.” Literally, (and this may have been just as profound, considering the roomful of scientists) the translation was “without torture no science.”
Motivational author Denis Waitley said, “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”
I think I’ll let Denis have the last word for now.
[Author’s Note: I submitted an article on our trip to Belarus, sponsored by USAID’s Farmer-to-Farmer program, working through CNFA, to an American trade journal. I’m awaiting their response. If they print it, we’ll share it here. Besides that, there is likely to be more information forthcoming on vermicomposting in Belarus and Eastern Europe. Stay tuned!]