Wonderful worms

UWL alumna helps turn 47,000 pounds of food waste into fertilizer

The vermicomposter is a 5 x 4 x 32-foot box that is home to tens of thousands of worms. Here UWL student Jeremy Shimetz and Andrea Schaefer, ’16, stand by the composter.

On a warm March day, Andrea Schaefer, ‘16, is in a small garage on Ferry Street in La Crosse. She is getting ready to feed a massive amount of hungry worms.

The air is thick, moist and filled with smells of rich, organic matter in the garage, which houses a vermicomposting system. This industrial sized flow-through composter is filled with tens of thousands of worms.

Schaefer works with UW-La Crosse senior Jeremy Shimetz, a vermicomposting intern, to dump loads of egg shells, vegetable shavings and fruit peelings into the composter. The worms feast on the scraps. Their excrement settles to the bottom of the container where it is collected as a nutrient-rich natural fertilizer. Bags of “VermiGold” are then donated to community garden projects and sold at various local spots in La Crosse.

UWL Senior Jeremy Shimetz dumping compost into the system. UWL has provided more than just food waste for the vermicomposting process. The UWL Green Fund purchased the original composter. Faculty expertise has come in handy for questions such as the microbiology of the compost pile, says Andrea Schaefer, ’16, Hillview Urban Agriculture Center vermicompost coordinator.

Since the vermicomposter was purchased in 2010, about 47,000 pounds of food waste have been diverted from the landfill while creating about 10,000 pounds of high value compost. The composter, now owned by Mayo Clinic Health System – Franciscan Healthcare, continues through a partnership among UW-La Crosse, Mayo Clinic and Hillview Urban Agriculture Center. Western Technical College, People’s Food Co-op, and Cool Beans coffee shop also contribute food waste and coffee grounds for the composter.

Andrea holding a handful of worms and dirt.

Andrea Schaefer, ’16, Hillview Urban Agriculture Center vermicompost coordinator, was an exercise and sport science major and nutrition and psychology minor. An internship during her time at UWL led to her current position.

Schaefer, Hillview’s vermicompost coordinator, became interested in the Hillview’s mission — creating a healthy community through a local, sustainable and accessible food system — as a UWL student.

She was a nutrition intern for Hillview, a position she landed through Biology lecturer Kristin Greany. That position led to her current position with the organization after graduation, which entails maintaining the vermicomposter, as well as educating the community about the center and vermicomposting system.

Schaefer says she likely would not have made the community connection to Hillview without her UWL connection. And Hillview has given her an opportunity to connect with many more people with similar interests in gardening, composting and sustainable living.

“This has been one of the best things to come from my university education,” she says.

Benefits all around

In addition to providing opportunities for UWL students and graduates, the vermicomposter saves the university money by sending less garbage to the dumpster while building on UWL’s commitment to environmental sustainability, says Larry Ringgenberg, UWL director of University Centers.

Those sustainable commitments range from UWL’s newest buildings, which feature green building certification, to the Green Fund, which directs student fees to support environmental-sustainability projects such as low-flow shower heads in residence halls and energy efficient lighting.

The vermicomposter was originally funded through UWL’s Green Fund. It was later sold to Mayo Clinic. UWL’s continued involvement in the composting project is the result of many UWL people being dedicated to making it a greener campus, says Ringgenberg.

“The entire institution is always doing something to foster how we interact with our environment,” he says.

So far pre-consumer food scraps from UWL’s Whitney Center are being collected. Ringgenberg says the goal is to expand the project and eventually collect from other dining areas on campus.

More than 400 pounds of compost a week from both UWL’s Whitney Center and Mayo Clinic Health Systems help feed the worms.

Landfill diversion reaches nearly 6,500 pounds this year

Last year, 6,497 pounds of food waste was diverted from the landfill because of the vermicomposting partnership.

  • UW-La Crosse, Whitney Center |3,329 lbs.
  • Mayo Clinic Health System – Franciscan Healthcare, Market Place Restaurant |2,936 lbs.
  • Western Technical College, Lunda Center |127 lbs. 
  • Peoples Food Co-op |105 lbs.