By Bonnie McCann
At one time or another, most parents have urged their bored offspring to “go outside and play in the dirt.” Jim Shaw took his father’s words literally. And now he’s watching his adult children take leadership roles in the family business.
“My dad was from Vermont. He was a fisherman. When I was 13 years old, he suggested that I dig up some worms and raise my own to sell to other fisherman,” Shaw says.
“While everyone was at home watching the Flintstones, Rin Tin Tin, and the Rifleman, my friends and myself (and of course my dad, who was the neighborhood chauffeur), were out picking night crawlers to all hours of the night. I hired anybody who was willing, and promptly paid out 1¢ per worm. Surprisingly, every so often, a neighborhood kid would hit the unimaginable 1,000 worm mark which would nearly break the bank with a $10 payout!
Shaw says his “little business” grew, and in 1976, he had to start buying worms wholesale from a big outfit from Canada because demand had become too large. “The sad thing was the price of my worms had to go from 40¢ a dozen to W70¢ a dozen,” he says. “It was crushing to all the ‘old timers’ who fished in the area. I was viewed as the nice neighborhood kid who became a part of the greedy corporate.
“Today, at Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm, we cater to two of the oldest hobbies, fishing and gardening.
“We specialize in red wigglers for worm composting. I’ve been raising red wiggler worms and mealworms for over 40 years,” he adds. “I’ve raised African night crawlers, Canadian night crawlers, and gray night crawlers. But I cannot find a tougher, quicker breeding and easier composting worm to raise than the red wigglers in a worm bin!”
As an adult, the Spring Grove resident worked as a professional truck driver for 30 years. At the same time, he has watched his vermiculture business – aka worm farming – grow, quite literally, from the ground up.
In fact, Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm has become a home-based, small family enterprise that has attracted media interest from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Mother Earth News, and Oprah’s TV show.
“Let’s face it. If you’re interested in worm composting, you probably aren’t the average guy or gal. You’re obviously environmentally aware, economically savvy, and eccentrically right on target. You’ve seen the earthly, organic, natural potential in red wiggler worms,” he says with a laugh. “Everyone in the world knows about worms. They’re fun. I knew the benefits of worms while mastering different feeding and breeding techniques. Everyone who bought the worms loved them.”
The new millennium and the “Go Green” movement created new opportunities for growth for Uncle Jim. Organic gardening was going mainstream, and the worm farm needed to modernize to keep up with demand.
“My son Jimmy became involved in the business. He was the catalyst, the spring board, for our little company,” he says. “I was still playing in the dirt and raising the worms, but Jimmy ran the e-commerce side of the business, adding relevant products, a website, and logistical arrangements for purchasing and shipping.”
A few years later, Shaw’s son John came aboard and took the lead role in raising the worms and keeping the inventory fed and healthy. Now John is the one with the strategies for better feeds and bedding. His daughters, Ann and Mary, have joined the staff and focus on customer service and office management.
Last, but not least, Shaw credits his wife Trisha for the original artwork as the company’s evolving brand identity evolved over time. The company’s website, unclejimswormfarm.com, includes a gallery of hand-drawn receipts and promotions over the years. It also documents the history of a young boy’s entrepreneurial spirit, sharing insights gained during decades of feeding and breeding red wigglers, showcasing his sense of humor and humility.
“The nerds always win! I enjoy what I do. It’s fun and I like it,” says Shaw. “We’re still a niche market. It’s not like selling toothpaste, toilet paper or groceries.”