This story is part of an occasional series called Dream Jobs profiling North Carolinians with jobs that may be unique, distinctive or even a little unusual.
Rhonda Sherman likes to say she became an internationally-renowned worm expert largely by accident.
She came to work at N.C. State University in 1993 as a solid waste extension agent, specializing in recycling and solid waste disposal. In the early 90s, recycling was beginning to go mainstream throughout the state, and at first, that was her primary focus. But vermicomposting, the process by which organic waste is fed to worms, became her claim to fame.
“I was basically told, publish or perish,” recalled Sherman. “So I published seven different fact sheets on different topics. One of the fact sheets I published was called “Worms Can Recycle Your Garbage.” I was in an engineering department and the engineers laughed at me. They were like, 'You wrote about worms, seriously?' They thought that was really funny, but it was so popular it had to be reprinted several times. The phone calls and emails started pouring in, so I had to create more publications just to keep up with demand.”
Since then, she's built a small empire around the work of red wigglers.
“People in 107 countries have contacted me about vermicomposting, which is really pretty wild,” she said with a laugh. “It's great. It makes my job interesting and exciting because every time I sit down at the computer and open up my email, there's no telling where the email will be from.”
In a little building off Lake Wheeler Road in Raleigh, she and her students run the Compost Learning Lab, also known as the Worm Barn. Here, in large plastic bins shielded from the light, 30,000 worms work to turn dairy cow manure into nutrient-rich castings, a dirt-like substance that sells for thirteen times more than regular compost.
Beyond the confines of the Worm Barn, her work has garnered an international audience. For the past 17 years she's hosted the N.C. State vermicomposting conference, drawing attendees from across the United States as well as seven countries. Some come to learn about the environmental benefits of diverting organic materials from the waste stream, but many, she believes, are looking to make a profit with commercial vermicomposting operations.
“Compost usually sells for up to $30 per cubic yard,” she said. “The same amount of vermicompost will sell for a minimum of $400 per cubic yard. I think that's why people flock to my vermicomposting conference. They're seeing dollar signs.”
Sherman regularly gives advice to individuals and institutions on how to incorporate vermicomposting into daily life, from a small worm bin under the kitchen sink to industrial-scale food scrap recycling programs for schools, prisons, and local governments. Whether she's speaking to a preschool class or a town council, Sherman said people always perk up when she talks about worms.
“It's a fun topic, and it's a funny topic,” she smiled. “Audiences love it, they're just totally engaged.”
As interest in both large and small scale vermicomposting continues to grow, Sherman and her students are exploring how to use worms to dispose of a broader range of organic materials, including farm animal waste and textile scraps.
“Due to popular demand and constant demand, it's become 90 percent of what I do,” she said. “I'm rarely asked recycling questions. Instead, it's all about worms.”