Ms. Appelhof traveled extensively throughout the U.S. and around the world as an international spokesperson and emissary of worm workers everywhere. She traveled to Belarus, a small nation formerly of the Soviet Union, at the invitation of Dr. Svetlana Maksimova of the Institute of Zoology in the Belarusian Academy of Science. There she observed a private vermicomposting facility and planned to return to visit another worm project in St. Petersburg Russia in May 1999. She made an extensive visit to Australia in October 1995 which was chronicled in Worm Digest’s Summer 1996 issue No. 13.
Another major project she coordinated was the international conference of worm industry practitioners and scientists that met in Kalamazoo, Michigan in late September 2000. Called Vermillennium, this conference commemorated the 20th anniversary of the 1980 Earthworm Workshop she organized and was attended by 129 scientists and worm workers from 19 countries.
Mary was a frequent contributor to Worm Digest and BioCycle and has published numerous articles on the subjects of earthworms and vermicomposting. She is co-author of “Small-Scale School and Domestic Vermicomposting Systems,” in the 2011 publication, Vermiculture Technology: Earthworms, Organic Wastes, and Environmental Management, edited by Clive Edwards, Norman Arancon and Rhonda Sherman. In the preface to that book, Dr. Edwards dedicated it to Mary, both for the volume of work over her lifetime and because she had much to do with the Vermillennium symposium of 2000, and its unpublished proceedings. Because they were so useful, Edwards and his colleagues assembled the manuscripts from the Vermillennium presenters and recruited many new chapter authors, compiling them into the book he called “the first comprehensive review of all aspects of the innovative science of vermiculture technology.” Mary Appelhof died May 4, 2005 at the age of 68, just weeks after having been diagnosed with cancer of the abdominal lining.
The Worm Woman of Kalamazoo was known to many as a passionate enthusiast for nature, science and the environment. Her good friend Kelly Slocum posted these words of remembrance on the Worm Digest internet Forum, shortly after finding out about her departure: “Renowned as the “Worm Woman”, Mary was the premier educator on home vermicomposting and is widely credited as the force behind the growing number of household worm bins around the world. She became the icon of the vermicomposting community. Loved for her humor and her kindness, admired for her energy and dedication, and recognized by her trademark tie-dyed t-shirts and the ever-present rubber earthworm in her pocket, Mary charmed and wooed thousands into keeping worms beneath the kitchen sink, and coaxed many into helping her encourage responsible environmental stewardship. The world has been better for her having been in it, and is a little lessened today with her passing.”
Appelhof was born June 11, 1936, in Detroit, Michigan. Her father was a minister and her mother was active in the church. She moved in the early 1970s to Kalamazoo, where she had lived since.
According to the Kalamazoo Gazette, “Friends say Appelhof was an award-winning nature photographer, trained to be an Olympic swimmer until she enrolled in Michigan State University (where she earned two master’s degrees) and had earned such recognition in vermicomposting that a huge photo of her hung in the Smithsonian Institution above a worm exhibit.” She taught biology at Kalamazoo Central High School and then left in order to spend more than three decades studying and reporting on worm composting.
In 1972 Ms. Appelhof established Flowerfield Enterprises to research and develop more convenient systems for people to harness worms to process their kitchen wastes. She added Flower Press in 1976 to formalize her publishing ventures and by 1982 self-published her first “How-to” book titled Worms Eat My Garbage: How to set up and maintain a worm composting system. The book, now in its second edition, has sold over 175,000 copies. It has been printed in Japanese and has spawned a library of related books, videos and children’s educational materials on vermicomposting—the use of earthworms and microorganisms to convert organic waste into black, earthy-smelling, nutrient-rich humus.
According to a Spring 2002 edition of a Home & Garden magazine article linked to her website, “Appelhof came to worm composting 30 years ago after participating in an international environmental conference in Stockholm. She had already purchased her first batch of worms intending to start a business raising worms for bait. She had reasoned that a worm business wouldn’t require much of an investment. When that first two-pound batch of worms arrived during a Michigan winter, she needed to do something quickly to keep them alive and so she built a container that she could keep indoors. During the winter, she found she could bury her garbage in the bin without any odor and, when spring arrived, she had worm castings for the garden. She used it on the third of an acre of broccoli and the tomatoes she planted that season with ‘spectacular’ results. She says she harvested nearly a bushel of tomatoes per plant.
Even though her initial worm business earned her only $300 that winter, Appelhof had other reasons for sticking with it. Philosophically, her convictions had been set in Stockholm.
“I believed in it,” she says simply. “I knew that no matter how many people would be composting with the worms I raised or I was responsible for other people raising, the world would be better off. I was going to restore and replenish rather than destroy and exploit the earth.” She has since received the National Recycing Coalition’s Composter of the Year award and Renew America’s special merit annual for her environmental accomplishments.”
Appelhof believed she must enter the world of self-publishing in order to gain a hearing for her ideas that would have been otherwise by-passed by large publishers who were more interested in profits than idealism. “I would have had a very difficult time trying to find an establishment-publisher publish my book, Worms Eat My Garbage,” she wrote on her website. “They would never have thought enough people would be interested in buying a copy to warrant investing in the project. My goal, however, was not to make lots of money, but to influence people’s thinking—to get them to think differently about waste, and give them tools to deal with it. Self-publishing my book was the way I could do that. So I learned what I had to learn to be able to do so. I self-publish because I can use all of my creative abilities in a variety of ways. I do it because I can get direct feedback from the people whose lives are changed by the content and spirit of my books. I savor the fact that I can provide meaningful work for my two employees. I relish the opportunity to grow in the myriad ways that publishing demands. I love the people I meet and interact with because I put my thoughts and ideas on the line in printed form. Small Press Publishing, to me, contributes not only to my own health, and vitality, spirit, and joy, but to the health, vitality, spirit and joy of my culture. Blessed be.”
According to her bio published at her www.wormwoman.com website, “Mary Appelhof has spent 33 years being inspired by, entertained by, educated by, and excited by worms. During all that time she has lived with them inside her home, quietly turning her food waste garbage into dark brown worm castings full of nutrients for houseplants and garden.”
Her vision at the time of the Stockholm Conference for the Human Environment (1972) was that “tons of worms could be eating tons of garbage.” She thought it would be huge piles of garbage being consumed by huge masses of worms. But this biologist and former high school teacher didn’t have the wherewithal to make that happen. So Appelhof did what she could. She started with a simple brochure, Basement Worm Bins Produce Potting Soil and Reduce Garbage, ©1973, produced on an ancient mimeograph machine she bought from the Democratic Party for $5. Appelhof talked to garden clubs; exhibited at harvest festivals, barter fairs, and energy expos. She was a lone voice for protecting the environment when she served on solid waste planning committees. This was before they even knew what composting was, to say nothing of vermicomposting. She gave workshops and lectures. She organized conferences. She helped knock down a $2 million dollar attempt to site a garbage-burning incinerator in SW Michigan.
Those thirty-three years have given Mary Appelhof enough time to learn how to publish a book considered to be a best seller in the domain of independent publishers. Her 1982 manual on how to set up and maintain a worm composting system, Worms Eat My Garbage sold 100,000 copies before the 1997 revision which has sold over 75,000 more. As author, publicist, opener of the mail, packager and shipper of the first few thousand books, Appelhof had direct contact with people whose lives were changed by her book. Many asked her for specific suggestions on what they could do in the classroom to get kids involved in worm composting. So Appelhof collaborated with two co-authors over a two-year period to produce Worms Eat Our Garbage: Classroom Activities for a Better Environment. (Flower Press, 1993) One of the thousands of teachers who used both of Appelhof’s books in her classroom did as all good students do; she went above and beyond the master. Binet Payne of Laytonville, California, developed with her students a school-wide program for vermicomposting cafeteria wastes and recycling everything else recyclable. This program saves the school $6000 a year in avoided dumpster fees in addition to providing the students with real-life learning as they maintain the worm bins and grow in the school gardens vegetables and flowers fertilized by vermicompost. As the most logical publisher around to publish Binet Payne’s book, Appelhof’s Flower Press published The Worm Cafe: Mid-scale Vermicomposting of Lunchroom Wastes in 1999.
To make worm composting more convenient for readers of her books, Appelhof sold worms by the pound so her customers could get the proper type of worm (redworms, Eisenia fetida) without going to a dozen bait shops looking for them. She said, “My work is processing information, networking, writing, and communicating. I found a worm grower with whom I have established a long-term relationship. I buy worms from her wholesale. I depend upon her; she depends upon me. We each do what we are good at and have a mutually beneficial relationship. That’s what I think all business relationships should be–symbiotic relationships –in biological terms.”
Appelhof also designed and patented a worm bin called the Worm-a-way®. Made of recycled plastic, its unique ventilation system consists of perforated pipes extending from aeration holes in the bottom of the bin and large vents in the lid. She was committed to providing employment to people who have difficulty finding jobs otherwise. Thus, she signed business contracts with Goodwill Industries to drill holes in the bins and pipes, as well as provide warehousing and pallet storage for books and bins. Her staff or hourly workers assembled the packets containing her book, garden fork, vents, and instructions that go into each of the bins.
Appelhof ventured into the domain of video production when she obtained a National Science Foundation grant to do videomicroscopy of live worms. With footage developed during that grant, she produced the educational video, Wormania! which contains amazing footage of baby worms twisting and turning inside their cocoons, earthworms mating, and even, a baby worm hatching from its cocoon. In the video, Appelhof assumes in living color her persona of Worm Woman, a name given to her by the organic gardening crowd back in the late 70s.
With two masters’ degrees, one in biology, the other in education, Mary Appelhof straddled the domains of academia and the layperson. She recognized from the beginning that worm growers needed to become more knowledgeable about earthworm science if they were going to develop a viable industry. But she could see also that scientists wouldn’t give worm growers the time of day if growers couldn’t be bothered learning what kind of worms they were growing. After all, redworms could be red wrigglers, or tiger worms, or brandling worms, or manure worms, depending on whom you were talking to and from what part of the country or the world. To the scientists, using the precise name Eisenia fetida at least gave a set of characteristics that could be discussed with a reasonable amount of certainty they were talking about the same species. So Appelhof organized two conferences bringing scientists and laypersons together to report and discuss research needs and technologies to develop the science and applications for vermiculture and vermicomposting, the first in 1980. The twentieth anniversary of that conference was the Vermillennium, held at Appelhof’s home base in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in Fall 2000. This major international conference attracted 129 scientists and worm workers from 19 countries.
Tons of worms eating tons of garbage? It’s happening. Thousands of homes and classrooms, a pound of worms, a pound of garbage at a time. Decentralized, on-site garbage disposal. People taking responsibility for their own wastes. Colorful gardens. Healthy food. As long as the vision is there, the details can vary.”
In her internet Forum post on the day of Mary’s passing Slocum wrote: “In her memory I offer these words: To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded. —-Bessie Stanley (adapted) Ah, Mary! What a success you have been, and how missed you will be! (signed) Kelly Slocum.”
Mary was a frequent speaker at VermiCo events since her first appearance in March 1999 at the New Horizons in Vermicomposting Workshop & Tour in Stockton, California. In May 2000, Mary spoke at the Orlando, Florida Vermicomposting Workshop & Tour and joined the list of recurring guest speakers at the annual two-day Best Management Practices in Vermicomposting Seminars in Portland, Oregon since her first visit in October 2000. She also presented in March 2001 at VermiCo’s Earthworms in Eco-Technology conference and trade show. In the October 2002 Best Management Practices in Vermicomposting Seminar, Mary prepared a wholly new presentation, calling on research in soil ecology and addressing the issue of how excess nitrogen might be better handled through vermicomposting and the use of compost (castings) tea.
IN MEMORIAM OF MARY APPELHOF June 4, 2005
Clive A. Edwards
The Ohio State University
I first met Mary in 1980, when she organized the milestone workshop on “The Role of Earthworms in the Stabilization of Organic Residues” which brought together scientists from all over the world, and which placed the technology of vermiculture on a firm scientific basis and changed the whole direction of my personal research for the coming 25 years. Since that time, I maintained a close friendship and association with Mary, meeting her very regularly at various national, international conferences and workshops, and always found her a great friend and good companion. In 2000, I worked closely with Mary to achieve her vision of organizing a second vermiculture conference to take place in Kalamazoo, 20 years after the first, which would be called the “Vermillennium” in recognition of the year. Her aim was to document how rapidly the science, technology and commercial adoption of vermiculture had advanced over 20 years and to provide a forum for practitioners to meet scientists. Her efforts were a great success and again provided a basis for a wide variety of people from many countries to meet and exchange ideas. We were all sad at that Conference, that a mutual friend from Australia John Buckerfield was unable to attend because he had cancer and was too ill to travel. Sadly, John died of cancer in 2002, and Mary organized a wide range of tributes to him, which she circulated widely. She wasn’t to know that, three years later, she would also succumb to the same disease.
I last saw Mary at a conference in Russia just over a year ago. After overcoming many problems, she succeeded in contacting Russian school children, and introducing them to her ideas on earthworms in her inimitable way.
Mary was completely dedicated to all aspects of earthworms and their use in disposing of organic wastes to produce useful materials and she published many books and articles on this subject. She was also completely dedicated to education and passing on her knowledge on to children, schools and school teachers so that they became aware of the great potential of the lowly earthworm for the good of the environment and humankind.
Mary’s many friends will continue to promote her vision and it is certain that her life’s work will not die with her. I am still producing an edited book on “Vermiculture”, to which Mary made several contributions, and I plan to dedicate this book to Mary’s memory.
We shall all miss her greatly but we are grateful for her work and visions.” Clive A. Edwards.
Mary was co-author with Rhonda Sherman of “Small-Scale School and Domestic Vermicomposting Systems,” in Vermiculture Technology: Earthworms, Organic Wastes, and Environmental Management, ed. by Clive A. Edwards, Norman Q. Arancon, and Rhonda Sherman, CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, 2011, 67-78.
For further information see “Interview with Mary Appelhof,” in In Their Own Words: Interviews with Vermiculture Experts (2000), Petros Publishing, Merlin, OR, 7-14. Also available from akgy.cn as an ebook.
Also see “Worm Woman Mary Appelhof Leaves Legacy,” Casting Call, June 2005, 1-4.