It is perhaps a strange form of ministry to encourage families
to coax worms from the earth.
Barrie’s Grace United Church is the progressive sort, where
members know they can’t survive on the old methods. So here’s
a new one: worm charming, where teams are assigned a plot of soil,
and use any manner of vibration to entice worms from their cozy
“I think we’re trying to move away from the traditional
roles of what churches are supposed to be,” says church
member Jack Brown, explaining that the church aims to be a community
hub. “I don’t know if it fits well with the big guy
upstairs. We have to be more relevant to the community.”
Last year, the church held their inaugural worm rodeo at Chappell
Farms. Brown’s friend Barb Richards, a self-described “old
worm picker from way back” is a local auctioneer and source
of the idea.
“I’d heard about it in the States. I knew it was pretty
popular there, I did some research and after I threw out the idea,
they just went crazy for it,” she says. “Certainly
it’s going through its growing pains; we’re just starting.”
Last year’s summoning was stymied by a dry summer and inhospitable
parking lot soil. After a certain point, the cheerful organizers
decided to let families dig a bit. In more competitive worm-charming
circles, this rule violation would likely be considered sacrilegious.
“I was actually astounded (that) when they dug they actually
found worms, because I didn’t think there’d be worms
within 500 feet, it was just like cement,” Brown says.
Several years ago, Kenneth Catania, a biology professor at Vanderbilt
University, went to Florida to study the phenomenon with local
bait collectors who use the “worm grunting” method,
which involves pounding a wooden stake into the ground and rubbing
a flat piece of metal on top of the stake. (The effect creates
a grunting noise.) Locals Gary and Audrey Revell, who helped Catania
with his study, make their living this way — on a good day,
collecting thousands of worms in the forest before 10:30 a.m.
“Gary’s husky. He leans on that piece of iron, he’s
on his knees, he leans on that thing and rubs it across with his
weight on it, and he grunts, he’s gotten into the habit
... the grunting is coming from him,” says Bill Lowrie,
president of the Sopchoppy Preservation and Improvement Association,
the group that organizes the Sopchoppy Worm Gruntin Festival.
(“Note the deliberate absence of the “g” in
grunting,” he later emails.)
In his research, Catania explained that moles create vibrations
in the ground when they dig their tunnels, and earthworms have
an ingrained escape response to avoid death. Wood turtles and
herring gulls have mimicked this — and Catania’s recordings
suggest “grunting” humans unknowingly do the same
There are many ways to go about the mimicry.
“When I was out putting up flyers for the festival, I went
into a bar during the daytime in a community not too far from
here … this old grizzled guy at the bar said, ‘Hell,
when I go out there I just take my chainsaw and stick it down
into the ground,’” Lowrie recalls.
Last year’s second place Barrie champions used a more family-friendly
combination of pots, recycling bins and a shovel.
“When we heard about it, we immediately went on Google and
discovered a whole world of worm charming that we had no idea
even existed,” says Heather Turner, reached via conference
call with the team’s key charmers, her children Adelaide
and Hudson. “It seems to be really popular in the U.K.,
probably because the soil is so rich and wet over there.”
In England, champions have been known to collect upwards of 500
worms. In Barrie, the Turner family secured second place with
“I’m going to use my, uh, what could I use?”
says 8-year-old Adelaide. “My xylophone!”
“Oh that’s a good idea,” says Turner. “Or
your harmonica, that could work. How about you Hudson?”
“A shovel,” he says.
“No, you can’t dig the worms,” his sister reminds
“It’s an interesting task for little ones; it doesn’t
happen in the first 30 seconds, you have to have some patience,
and you have to stick with it,” Turner says. “These
are good life skills.”
In hosting an event, Barrie joins communities like Sopchoppy,
Fla., and Willaston, United Kingdom, where the spectacle is governed
by “The International Federation of Charming Worms and Allied
Pastimes” which also looks after “other zany sports
such as indoor hand gliding, underwater Ludo and ice tiddly-winks.”
Cathy Nesbitt, a worm-lover who runs a vermicomposting business
in Bradford, says it may seem “kind of cruel and unusual,”
but she is satisfied worms are not harmed. As per the rules, worms
are placed in cups of peat moss and added back into the ground
after the count.
“I think this type of activity connects parents and kids,
and it makes worms fun. Anything that connects people to nature
is fun,” she says.
Nesbitt was the grand champion at a worm charming event in nearby
Shelburne in 2011, charming 14 worms by plopping a pitchfork into
the soil and rocking a piece of corrugated steel against it.
“It was a little bit embarrassing, having a worm company
and everything,” she says of the win.
Brown and the team at Grace United hope the worms will be plentiful
this Saturday, given the summer’s rainfall and a softer
plot of land. Admission is free, but competing teams have to be
sponsored to the tune of $50. There are other events, including
an auction, with proceeds going toward the church and the Senior
Wish Association. The charming begins after 11 a.m.
“This isn’t your usual typical everyday church …
certainly religion is a very important part, but boy oh boy, they
just open up the doors to the community,” says Richards.
“Their place is busy all the time, and they don’t
ask anything in return.”
Just that you refrain from performance-enhancing drugs, like water
Doors open at 10 a.m. at Chappell Farms in Barrie. Visit wormrodeo.com
for more information.
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Follow this link to photos of 2011 Worm Charming Championship held in Shelburne