Rhonda Sherman

Rhonda Sherman, extension solid waste specialist in the department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, poses for a portrait in the compost training facility at N.C. State's Field Laboratory Thursday, January 26 2012. Since 2001, Sherman has offered the only annual training for vermicomposting in the world. The next vermicomposting conference is scheduled to take place in the fall of 2012. Photo by Tyler Andrews

Rhonda Sherman is an accidental expert.

Not to say Sherman hasn't put countless hours in the classroom and lab, but she did not originally intend to become one of the Western Hemisphere's leaders in vermicomposting , or composting with worms.

As an extension specialist in N.C. State's Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering in 1994, Sherman wrote a fact sheet entitled "Worms Can Recycle Your Garbage" about the relatively unknown subject of vermicomposting .  To her surprise, the publication flew off the shelf, and was reprinted many times.

Her recent successes have been a bit overwhelming for Sherman, and even a bit unexpected.  Her findings thrust her into the inner circle of vermicomposting experts in the United States.

"In 1997, I started posting more information on vermicomposting on my website because interest had been growing."  Sherman said.  "It continued to grow so much that, during the past five years, at least 90% of the people who ask me for information are inquiring about vermicomposting."

Now, she says, almost all the emails she receives are questions regarding vermicomposting.  She has answered questions from hundreds of curious composters from an astonishing 78 countries around the world. 

The idea of vermicomposting, in Sherman's words, is to "[transform] organic waste into [a] valuable resource."

Not only is the end product valuable, but so are the environmental benefits.  Vermicomposting provides a natural and eco-friendly way to get rid of one's trash, while also producing effective soil amendments.

Hog waste, which has been environmentally detrimental in North Carolina in the past decades, can be used as a food for composting worms.  Instead of dumping hog waste into football-sized lagoons, like one that spilt in 1995, killing ten million fish and shutting down over 350,000 acres of wetlands, livestock farmers can use vermicomposting as a safe and effective way to get rid of hog waste.

The process of vermicomposting involves organic waste, such as food scraps and animal excrement, and putting it in an enclosed container.  This container can be anything from a five-dollar plastic bin to Sherman's flow-through automated worm bin.  Sherman's worm bin is about the size of the bed of a pickup truck and requires about 40 pounds of worms to break down the amount of waste it can handle. Each type of container yields a different type of worm compost, just one of many factors that can alter the final product.

"There are so many different variables," Sherman said. "It's a biological living system, so different from manufactured fertilizer. 

In the container, the composting worms are placed on top of bedding, which is around six inches deep.  To escape the light, the earthworms retreat down into the bedding, only to come up to feed on a layer of food on top.

Through digestion, the worms leave excrement, which collects at the bottom of the composting container.  Extremely rich in nutrients, the worms' waste is removed from the bottom and collected, the fertilizing gold of a waste-recycling process.

Although much more expensive than manufactured fertilizer at about $400 a cubic yard, it is much more effective, and only a little can render great results.

"[Worm] compost has [a] great impact on plant growth and disease control," Sherman said. 

The author of numerous publications on composting and vermicomposting, Sherman is also the co-founder and vice president of the North Carolina Composting Council.

She also started N.C. State's Vermicompost Conference, which will hold its 13th meeting this fall.  The conference holds lectures and discussions, attracting around a hundred experts and interested persons each year.

The international acclaim continues to stun Sherman, and every time she opens her email, her anticipation builds.

"[Each time I think], who am I going to hear from?" Sherman said, "and from what country?"

Although she never intended to become a world leader in vermicomposting, that is what Sherman is now.