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magazine / so98

September/October 1998 issue


FEATURE
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.


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WRIGGLY
FACTS & FIGURES

Number of worm species identified in Canada: 25

Number of segments in a full grown dew-worm: approximately 150, all of them capable of sensing light and touch

Average length of a dew-worm: about 25 centimetres, roughly the height of this page

Life expectancy: approximately seven to nine years

Number of worms that can fit in a regulation worm-picking coffee can: 400 to 600

Number of offspring a dew-worm produces each year: 10 to 12

UNDERGROUND
ECONOMY

Estimated number of seasonal worm pickers: 2,000 to 3,000 across Canada

Amount a skilled picker can make in a night: about $75

Amount a less experienced picker may make: as little as $15

Length of a picker's workday: generally eight hours, from dusk 'til dawn

Number of good picking nights: on average, only 60 to 70 per year, from March to November

Worm-picking capital of Canada: Ontario

Other worm-picking regions: the Montréal area, the Maritimes and British Columbia

Tax implications: Despite the difficulties of monitoring a seasonal and nocturnal industry, Revenue Canada insists it keeps a close watch on worm picking to ensure tax laws are respected.

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.

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