It’s not just people who eat well at El Pinto New Mexican restaurant. So do the worms.
El Pinto is a busy place and therefore generates a lot of food waste. Owners Jim and John Thomas didn’t want to keep throwing all that biodegradable material into the trash, so about six years ago they started experimenting with a form of composting they’d learned about on a visit to Chihuahua—
Of course, worms aren’t exactly rare in any compost bin. But vermicomposting uses a special variety called red wigglers. These worms process large amounts of organic material in their natural habitat and they gladly eat more than their own weight in food every day. They are fast reproducers and tolerate a wide range of temperatures, acidity and moisture conditions. Red wigglers are tough little worms, too, so they don’t mind getting handled and having their dwelling disrupted come harvest time.
These worms eat almost as well as we do. The kitchen takes meticulous care to grind up all their veggie scraps to reduce particle size for them. The worm bin is well-ventilated with PVC tubes so that enough oxygen permeates the area. In winter, El Pinto is careful that not too much cold air flows through the system. Therefore, the worms are cozy and snug in their fluffy sphagnum moss and cotton compost bedding.
The business at El Pinto fluctuates across the seasons, but the worms work all year round to break down the waste from the kitchen. During the winter the restaurant may feed the worms only 40 pounds of vegetable scraps weekly, but during the warmer months the kitchen might generate as much as 100 pounds of organic matter per week. As the worms work they produce fertilizer that is excellent for house and garden plants.
The worms in a vermiculture system thrive in an aerobic environment where oxygen is present throughout the bedding. While on a tour of the operation, I watch as Jim Thomas reaches his hand deep into the bin and pulls up a clump of worms writhing in soft humus. With worms up to his nose, he smiles widely and boasts “See, there’s no odor.” There are bits of food waste mixed in with the worms, but absolutely no offensive smells.
Randy Chavez is the down-to-earth gardener and manager of the vermiculture system at El Pinto, and he is a big fan of the worms. He directly witnesses the amount of waste the worms are able to recycle and is enthusiastic about the composting practices at El Pinto. As we search for the worms in the middle of the bin, Chavez tells me “I don’t understand this idea of pumping people with chemicals when they die and putting them in metal caskets. When I die I just want to be put in the ground with two or three pounds of worms. They’ll return me to the soil in no time at all.”
Chavez says that the castings, or worm poop, are harvested about once a year, and used as a soil amendment for all the plants in the restaurant. And it’s good ol’ worm pee that makes El Pinto’s chile so tasty. Well, it’s a little more complex than that, but the liquid run-off from the worm bin, or “leachate,” packs a potent mixture of vitamins and minerals that is collected in 55-gallon barrels and used on El Pinto’s chile fields down in Hatch, N.M. During the warmer months, when the worms produce as much as 55 gallons of leachate every other day, El Pinto also shares the fertilizer with other local farmers.
When it comes to that yearly casting harvest, it can sometimes be tricky separating the worms in the bin, but El Pinto uses an effective method that causes them little distress. Chavez puts the food in a gunny sack in the middle of the compost pile, so that the worms work their way in between the burlap and are then collected in the sack. Once the castings are collected, the worms are returned to their home to continue their recycling efforts.
After my tour, the kitchen prepares me a delicious calabacitas burrito stuffed with flavorful and heat-packed green chile. Somehow, it tastes better knowing that my leftovers will be going to feed the same hungry red worms that helped it taste so good to begin with.