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Meet Wayne King the Earthworm King

February 6, 1988

CANTON, N.C. (AP) _ When he returned home from the logging forests of Washington 15 years ago, Wayne King needed a job.

But instead of looking for regular work, he set himself up in the wholesale bait business and soon developed a reputation as western North Carolina’s earthworm king.

″Thing is, we’re getting smaller and smaller every year,″ King, 46, said. ″We used to sell 50 million a year ... now, it’s more like 30 million.″

Local competition, Canadian imports and sporadic labor shortages have pinched off a large chunk of Carolina Wholesale Bait Co.’s business as King strives to keep a share of the estimated 2.5 billion earthworms U.S. fishermen buy annually at prices of about 18 worms for $1.

″Worm wars″ have occasionally produced drastic price changes and led to mysterious fires in barns and buildings where dealers stored their inventories, King said.

″This is a cutthroat business,″ he said.

North Carolina’s worm industry exists largely outside typical business circles. There are few government regulations and no associations control wholesalers. An irregular army of collectors stalks golf courses and cow pastures in search of night crawlers, which sell for about $20 per 1,000.

King’s earthworm clearinghouse, a converted gas station about 15 miles south of Asheville, is a family-owned and -operated business where he and a handful of workers spend their time rebuilding logging trucks and handling worms.

The gas pumps are gone. A few cars are parked on an asphalt apron; the rest of the space is cluttered by a truck being rebuilt and assorted pieces of metal.

The building’s two garages house a tractor and a large, walk-in cooler where King stores thousands of worms: 500 in each Styrofoam tray filled with peat moss. The trays are stacked from floor to ceiling.

Most days, the cooler’s thermostat is set at 33 or 34, warm enough to keep the 300,000 worms inside from freezing, cold enough to keep them burrowed beneath the surface of each tray.

″Here, in Haywood County, is the only place in the South I know of where there are worms produced,″ King said as he carved on a broken pencil. Night crawlers are picked commercially in North Carolina, Idaho, Ohio, Canada and sometimes Oregon. South of North Carolina, the soil and the climates are too hot and dry.

Although summer remains King’s busiest season, worm pickers in the North Carolina mountains have their best nights during cooler months, usually from November to mid-April or early May.

″If the ground gets too hot, they aren’t any good - they get too stringy,″ said Hope King, who manages her son’s business. King is forced to haul worms out of Canada - 2 million to the tractor-trailer load - during the summer.

But on moist winter nights, when the temperature stays between 40 and 50 and everything remains wet from the day’s rain or a heavy dew, the pickers head out to golf courses, pastures and meadows.

″And in their yards,″ Mrs. King, 68, said. ″There are people as old as I am or older, and they pick in their yards.″

Worm-picking is a skill that takes a quick but gentle hand, a strong back and a few pieces of special equipment including a head lamp, a juice can filled with fine, butcher-shop style sawdust, and something to hold captured worms.

″If you’re a real good catcher, you can catch 1,000 in 15 or 20 minutes,″ said Jimmy Russell, a worker at King’s who spent many of his younger nights chasing worms. On those good nights, worms are everywhere, lying on top of the ground. Russell said he had seen one picker who had grabbed 13,000 in a single night.

″It all depends on how good a shape your back is in and how bad you want to make money,″ Russell said. ″It’s a fast way of making money.″

A picker finds his target, squats down, dips his fingers into his sawdust and grabs the worm. The dust cuts down on the slimy substance the worms secrete, but many inexperienced pickers break worms or watch them slip through their fingers.

When they’ve got enough, they head to places like King’s shop where their worms are checked for tears or breaks and then dumped into a gallon-sized vegetable tin. A mark near the top lets the counter know when he has 500 in the can.

He empties the 500 into a 3-inch deep Styrofoam tray, about one foot by one foot, filled with peat moss. The tray is taken into the cooler, and the cold forces the worms to burrow into the dirt, leaving trash behind.

END ADV Weekend Editions Feb. 6-7

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