Because you never get enough worms can have in the bed, they can also be ordered. A visit to Germany’s largest worm breeding farm.
Marvin Langhoff stands meters high in a hall in which plastic boxes are piled up. It smells of earth, a fan hums. Langhoff is not alone. Earthworms live in the boxes around him, so many that he can only guess. A few million? Maybe. Marvin Langhoff and his family go to great lengths to breed earthworms. Because that’s good business. And because the little animals do not, as the myth claims, multiply as soon as they are divided in the middle. Rather? It all started with this question, among other things.
Gap in the market worms
At the end of the nineties, Marvin, at that time still a primary school student, dragged collected earthworms home in a cookie jar and wanted to know everything about the wriggling creatures. His father researched the net – and discovered a niche in the market. “There were worm breeding farms all over the world, but not in Germany,” says Marvin Langhoff, who is 28 today. So his parents, Martina and Martin, started growing earthworms and selling them online. A photo in the office shows the humble beginnings: boxes piled up in a garage. What started small is now huge: Breeding takes place on 1200 square meters in an industrial area near Cologne. The name: super worm. Up to 15 employees lend a hand, sending parcels to gardeners, anglers, large aquariums and zoos, mainly in Germany.
Initially, mainly anglers were looking for Superwurm worms, but hobby gardeners now make up the largest customer base. Escape from the city, allotment garden hype, urban gardening – more and more people want to become one with nature and grow their own vegetables and herbs. They also come across the worm. Good for the Langhoffs: in 2020 they sold between 15 and 17 tons of earthworms. The weight of almost three bull elephants.
Many people think that we are rummaging around in a pile of earth.
Worms as mass-produced goods, packed in 500 grams or in a one-kilo bag, nobody had the idea before: With the “all-round carefree package” – bucket, special food, one kilo of earthworms … – anglers always have fresh bait in the house. And gardeners can use sack orders to unleash entire armies of worms on beds, compost and lawns, for example to improve loamy soil. The Langhoff family also sells whatever comes out of the worm at the back. Nutrient-rich “worm humus” is stored here in large sacks, which, when used as fertilizer, gets tired plants going. In short: there is nothing that cannot be turned into a product here.
“A lot of people think we’re rummaging around in a pile of earth,” says junior boss Marvin Langhoff, who wears a hat, torn jeans and a quilted vest with the company logo. In fact, everything here is full of ultra-modern machines that cart worms back and forth, sift them out of the earth and give them food. And then a vehicle is already rolling in, picks up boxes and takes them to another hall to the feeding system, the “worm canteen” so to speak. It squeaks, rattles and puffs. The boxes now run on a conveyor belt, feed dribbled down from machines, new soil, fresh water. An organic soil with proteins, vitamins and minerals for “healthy and strong worms” is served. The family keeps the exact mixture secret like star chefs keep their latest creations.
It’s cool in the hall with the stacked boxes, neon light attacks from above, day and night. The glaring brightness ensures that the light-shy earthworms stay in the boxes. If it were dark, they would crawl out. After a power failure there was once a maddening crowd in the hall. “We shoveled them back into the boxes with our hands,” says Marvin Langhoff.
His father Martin comes running through the hall. He developed all the machines in the company himself; in the evenings he likes to sit in front of the television with pen and paper and think up new technology to make the worm business even more sophisticated. “I’m not running out of ideas,” says the 63-year-old. On his cell phone, he shows a worm counting machine in action: a robot arm picks up individual worms and places them in small boxes. An offer for anglers who only need small numbers. “If you count 50 worms by hand 200 times a day, you get bogged down,” says soon-to-be daughter-in-law Janina, who also works in the company.
The worm jars are just a side business for the Langhoffs, just like maggots and biscuit-flavored bait dips. The mass product is the bringer: 500 grams of medium-sized worms cost just under 20 euros. That is “about 400 pieces” “it says on the website. If there are a few extra fat specimens among them, the number will decrease. Nevertheless, there were always nagging customers who counted: “This time it was 20 worms less.” But you can also find all kinds of cheering comments: “Great, the beasts”, “Our turtles are always looking forward to the delivery” or “The compost has already sunk a bit after two weeks. Hopefully they won’t found a union and make excessive wage claims”. Crazy inquiries land in the mailbox every now and then. Marvin Langhoff tells of a group that ordered earthworms for a survival workshop. As provisions. Where are the limits? They refused a delivery to Dubai because the worms would not have arrived there alive.
People get on the worm
The pandemic did not harm them, on the contrary: “People suddenly had a lot of time to make their garden,” says Marvin Langhoff. On the first lockdown weekend last year, more orders were received than ever before. There were no delivery bottlenecks. Worms don’t go out as quickly as pasta or toilet paper.
The company does not need to invest in advertising. Take a journalist through the hall from time to time, a little social media, that’s enough. The business has been running on its own for years. Does it make you rich? Martin Langhoff evades: “It’s a lot of work.”
The Langhoffs are as active as their worms: “Our father always worked, on weekends, on vacation,” says Marvin. But since Langhoff senior still works full-time in another company, it was mainly the mother who gave up the business for years when the sons Marc and Marvin were still going to school. Today both manage the company. While Marc focuses on bookkeeping and quality assurance, Marvin and Janina are experts in social media in the company. They post videos on Instagram in which they boldly reach into a box full of maggots, but they also use the platform to clear up the fairy tale of the earthworm divided into two parts.
Because sex is what it takes. As a reminder: Earthworms are hermaphrodites, so they have both testicles and ovaries. So they can fertilize each other quite flexibly. It takes about two weeks for a worm to emerge from the cocoon. Then they grow up on the superworm farm in their shared apartments in the ground until they deserve their name: giant redworms. The Langhoffs breed this variety because it is particularly robust and adaptable. Still, the worm needs a bit of wellness to grow. Moist earth, loose soil and temperatures between ten and 15 degrees.
Not as easy as you might think
“Many think that breeding worms would be easy,” says senior Martin Langhoff. Some simply copied texts and images from the website and bought worms somewhere in order to sell them under similar names. There have also been business people who wanted to talk about alleged collaborations, but only came to spy on machines. “We no longer let everyone in,” says Martin. You never stop learning.
Ten years ago people would call Superworm worriedly asking how they could get rid of earthworms from their gardens. They thought they were pests that used plant roots. Today everyone actually knows what is wrong with the worm: delicious bait, hard-working gardening helpers. As such, he works non-stop, eats, shut up and never sleeps. Its droppings nourish the soil. The earthworm, the silent ruler of the earth, is an all-rounder and the perfect employee in a performance society like ours.
Marvin Langhoff tenderly strokes earth from a worm. It has real power, winds its way quickly through his fingers, pulsating life. Langhoff lets it slide back into a box in which even more worms scurry around and in the middle of which the flagship worm is just one of many again.
This article originally appeared in Barbara issue no. 05/2021.