||September/October 1998 issue||
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
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
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.
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
Estimated number of seasonal worm pickers: 2,000
to 3,000 across Canada
Amount a skilled picker can make in a night: about
Amount a less experienced picker may make: as little
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
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
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
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