Join Date: Oct 2010
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An article I found on the Canadian worm picking industry: Worm-picking industry: Canadian Geographic Magazine
Subterranean harvest |
Underground economy takes on a new meaning in Ontario where a multi-million dollar worm-picking industry thrives largely outside the tax man's reach.
By Allen Abel
Cut in the middle of wriggly field in the teeth of a late-spring gale, three Poles, seven Greeks and two Vietnamese are bent like saplings, their heads hooded, their feet booted, their hands as busy as croupiers, tearing money out of the ground.
The cash crop they are gathering is one of Canada's most populous wild animals, the common dew-worm, craved by North American and European anglers as an irresistible casting call for fish. Lumbricus terrestris may be a "lowly" invertebrate, but it has become the backbone of laissez-faire capitalism at its crudest - the harvesting and wholesaling of a perishable, seasonal, singular commodity in a largely unregulated, cut-throat industry.
A couple of centuries ago, there was nary a dew-worm in all of Eastern Canada — the Ice Age would have polished off the native species (if there were any), and southerly survivors had yet to squirm north. Today, thanks to European and Asian settlers who imported them in potting soil and in ship's ballast - and to the worms' fervid reproduction rate — there are at least a trillion in Ontario alone, despite the best efforts of the indefatigable immigrants who, night after night, year after year, stoop to conquer their own poverty, out in the rural darkness where the taxman cannot see them.
For decades, such ecumenical gatherings have been a familiar sight on the lawns, farms and fairways of Windsor, London, Toronto, Kingston and all points between, the bottom rung of an industry whose annual exports have been estimated - because no one really knows - at anywhere between $40 and $100 million. The business is secretive, slippery and occasionally sordid. To the Canadian and American middlemen who stand between the burrow and the bait bucket it can be immensely profitable or brutally fickle.
Newspaper headlines from the past few years offer a snapshot of a renegade trade:
"WORM PICKERS' BRAWL INJURES 13"
"600,000 DEW-WORMS STOLEN FROM LEASIDE BAIT COMPANY"
"FIREARM CHARGE DISMISSED IN ROW WITH WORM PICKERS"
"DRIVER, 35, CHARGED AFTER WORM PICKERS HURT IN CRASH"
"PICKERS STEALING HIS WORMS, FARMER SAYS"
In the field, the mechanics of the harvest are much less colourful. As a worm pokes its anterior end out of its hole, seeking food or a fellow hermaphrodite with whom to swap sperm, the picker pounces, yanking the victim clear of the ground before the worm's head can tell the worm's tail to hold on for dear life. This alien abduction is repeated every four or five seconds, a thousand times an hour on a good, warm, wet night, enabling a skilful picker to gather upwards of 6,000 victims — at $15 to $30 per thousand, depending on demand — in one session. The record, it is said, is 22,500 worms in one night, by one man, with only two hands.
This night, on a farm near the Canada's Wonderland amusement park, a 20-minute drive northwest from downtown Toronto, no one will come close to that standard. A late-day thunderstorm has softened the soil after weeks of rainless heat, but now a cold front has muscled in, the temperature is diving toward zero and the wind is screaming like a jet engine, conditions that discourage all but the most starved and sex-starved annelids from emerging.
Still, the pickers persevere. In the back of a boxy five-tonne truck with bench seats and a few doors and windows cut into its cargo hold, they prepare for their long night's labour, swaddling themselves in multiple strata of plastic ponchos and slickers against the chill.
Suitably insulated, the harvesters bind coffee cans to each leg - one for the worms, one for sawdust to keep their fingers dry - and mount a miner's lamp and a nine-volt battery on their heads. Then they trudge off to a fallow, muddy soybean field to begin the backbreaking enterprise that might earn them, on this blustery night, $80 or $100 before dawn.
Their prey is astonishingly copious. Even in this rainless hurricane, each square metre of the surface contains at least a dozen visible worms, many of them locked in mating pairs, ripe for the plucking. But getting them takes skill and a firm, but not too firm, grip - the worms slide backwards into their dormitories in less than a second when touched. Only whole animals are wanted. The common belief that earthworms torn in half can regenerate themselves is folklore. Ripped anywhere except for a few segments near their anterior, they quickly die.
"American people want go fish but they no like pay for worms," one Greek woman says as she straps on her equipment, neatly summarizing the economics of the industry. It is the most extensive interview any of the pickers grants all evening. A worm truck is the antithesis of Cheers — a place where nobody knows your name.
"Could I speak to you at home about this work?" she is asked.
"I forgot my phone number," the worm picker replies.
"I come to Canada, I can't find a job, I don't speak English, I don't go in a store, rob people, kill people, what am I going to do?" George Alafogiannis shrugs. "Wash dishes or pick worms."
We're in the office of OK Bait Ltd. in Toronto's west-end rust belt, where the Alafogiannis family maintains a chilled warehouse capable of interning more than two million worms for shipment to the United States. Nearly 30 years ago, Alafogiannis, a cook on a Greek cargo ship, chose worms over washing-up and never looked back. He describes OK Bait as a medium-sized operation and rejects as calumny the rumour that the men at the anterior end of the business are filthy rich.
"I see on TV in Ottawa they did a documentary that said you make a million dollars picking worms," he says. "I call the guy and I tell him, 'I give you a bucket. I take you out. You see if you make a million dollars picking worms.'"
The Alafogiannis family tries to run the most circumspect operation possible in a fiercely competitive agribusiness that has no labour unions, trade associations, occupational health and safety standards, workers' compensation, sales licences or government inspectors. In dry summers, as 1998 was shaping up to be in early June, prices rise sharply and well-managed inventories can be sold at handsome profits. In rain-soaked years, supply drowns demand.
There are frequent crises. A couple of years ago, George says, he lost six million worms to some mysterious affliction that killed them soon after picking. He blames "acid rain, or they give medicine for cows." It is a typical lament in a pessimistic business. Among the men and women of worms, seldom is heard an un-discouraging word.
"The buyers in the States watch CNN and when they see rain in Ontario, the price goes down," sighs George's son John.
"We're completely dependent on the weather," his brother Nick agrees. "To find worms, we have to follow the rain, wherever it is — Windsor, Walkerton, Barrie, Kingston — we just go. No worms, no money. No money, no funny."
"We keep track of Environment Canada," John says. "They're wrong 50 percent of the time. We do just as well ourselves, looking out the window."
Nick Alafogiannis is a trained electrician. John is studying accounting. Neither expects to remain forever in his father's trade. They will turn it over to the Southeast Asians — Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians — who already make up the vast (and very silent) majority of the pickers and drivers in this physically gruelling and least ennobling of outdoor trades.
George's boys started at the bottom — bent over in a farmer's field, plucking as fast as they could. Now John manages the distribution network and Nick picks up the pickers at dusk and drives them to wherever the worms are and catches an hour or two of sleep while they labour.
"What technological changes have you seen in recent years?" I ask Nick.
"Rechargeable batteries," he replies.
We're warm and windless in the cab of the truck and the pickers are bobbing points of yellow light, off in the middle distance. Nick is explaining how his people are sometimes menaced by coyotes, about the drunk drivers he sees weaving down country roads at closing time, about the men who attacked his truck with beer bottles and baseball bats on a farm north of Pickering. He did what he had to do that night, he says. One man's hand was injured in the melee, but all criminal charges were subsequently dropped.
As we chat, three other unmarked trucks come plodding and bouncing up the farm path like a family of elephants — Vietnamese freelancers looking for a worm-filled field to mine. Seeing us, they stop, back up, turn around, and lumber off for greener pastures in a shadowy ballet that is repeated across the province every rainy spring and summer night.
Some Ontario farmers lease their land by the season for picking. Other territories are simply invaded. In St. Catharines in 1986, a provincial court judge dismissed a charge of careless discharge of a firearm against a fruit grower who aimed two shotgun blasts over the heads of his uninvited guests. A few years later, another farmer complained that police would charge worm pickers with trespassing — a minor infraction punishable by a fine of $55 these days — rather than theft. But the demand in the U.S. is so insatiable, and the supply in Ontario so inexhaustible, that the field work goes on.
"One time, this big Ukrainian guy comes to me," Nick says. "He says, 'I am strong worker. I want to pick worms.' I take him out. I go away and check some other fields. When I come back, he's sitting in Coffee Time, eating a donut, with his cans still on his legs. He picked 20 worms and quit."
Not everyone who masters the craft is interested in bragging about it, says John. "A lot of people have gone through this job. They become doctors, lawyers. Some well-off people are ashamed to admit it."
I ask Nick if the business has made his father wealthy. "If my dad was rich,"Nick Alafogiannis asks, "would he do this?"
"Worms have played a more important part in the history of the world than most persons would at first suppose," wrote Charles Darwin (in 1881) in his final published work, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms with Observations of their Habits. "When we behold a wide, turf-covered expanse, we should remember that its smoothness, on which so much of its beauty depends, is mainly due to all the inequalities having been slowly levelled by worms."
Darwin went on to discuss the worms' strength ("great muscular power for their size"), hearing ("they are completely deaf"), vision ("they cannot be said to see") and skill at plugging their burrows with bits of leaves when threatened ("they act in nearly the same manner as would a man").
More than a century later, Dr. Alan Tomlin of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada treads in Darwin's deep, deep footsteps. Tomlin, one of two research scientists actively studying Lumbricus terrestris and the industry it unwittingly sustains, estimates that the collective biomass of earthworms in southern Ontario is double or triple that of the human population, and guesses that the total value of worms exported annually is in the $50-million range. The pickers themselves, Tomlin says, may take home a third of that amount, in cash.
Tomlin says that a mid—sized company might send 50 million worms across the border in a single year. If the pickers receive $20 per thousand, and the worms retail for $2 (U.S.) per dozen in Ohio or the Carolinas, that leaves a lot of room for profit in between. But prices fluctuate so drastically with the weather, the worms are so perishable when crated, and the flow of paper is so incomplete, actual figures are as elusive as a worm on a dry, cold night.
"This is a business run for decades off immigrants' backs," Tomlin tells me in his office in London, Ont. "Because it's done at night, it's very difficult for Revenue Canada to get a handle on it."
Tomlin encourages Ontario farmers to lease at least a portion of their lands to worm pickers each summer as a source of added income and a vaccine against trespassing disputes. There is no danger of denuding the soil of its denizens. Even if the pickers took a billion worms each season, he says, that would leave 99.9 percent of the creatures undisturbed and underfoot.
"Do you think the worms feel any pain when they are hooked?" I ask the scientist.
"Humans are very arrogant about what feels pain and what doesn't," he replies. "But the worms don't seem very happy."
"They owe it all to me," Robert Drouin says. "I'm the guy who started it."
The gentleman making this declaration is an 82—year—old Québécois who came out of the asbestos mines with tuberculosis in 1939. Released six years later from a sanatorium in Hamilton, Ont., after treatment for his blackened lungs, Drouin continually flunked the chest X—rays that were requisite for a factory job. One night, noticing his lawn overrun with delectable wrigglers, he gathered them and brought them to the owner of a bait shop who asked for more, more, more.
By 1953, Drouin and two Toronto brothers joined forces to systematize picking and transportation. The ex—miner introduced battery—powered headlamps to replace the bulky coal—oil lanterns that had left pluckers with blackened faces and only one hand free. He has little time for complaints about the punishing lot of the poor field hands.
"When I was in the asbestos mines with my dad," he remembers, "we had to drill and blast the rock by hand with an air drill, then muck it out and shovel it by hand into a little trolley on a track. Picking worms, you only have these little worms to pick up. What would you rather do — that, or shovel 52,000 pounds of rock in an eight—hour shift?"
In the cluttered office of his home in Etobicoke, Drouin shows me clippings from the old Toronto Telegram — "Worm—Picking Industry Gives $500,000 Twist To Night Life On Links" — and a small notebook that records how many worms he, his wife, and their line of pickers gathered, night by night, in 1952. It is Drouin who attributes the world record of 22,500 in one session to a man he knew as "Ken J." around 1972.
The pioneer no longer works the fields, but he keeps his hand in the business by operating a trans—Atlantic export trade, shipping worms by the boxful to Germany, Belgium, Denmark and Holland.
Out in his garage, he is experimenting with soil mixtures, trying to find a way to render the worms even healthier and juicier as they await transport, sale and inevitable death in the maw of some perch or pickerel. But the thought of impaling his beauties on a fishing hook gives him the chills.
"I guess it's old age that causes that," Drouin says. "I know it hurts them. I really do.
"I go in the garage and I pick them up and they are so fat and beautiful. I tell them, 'No way you're going to the fish.' And I throw them back in the garden."