A red wriggler. (Photo: Rob Hille/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Not long before B&B Farms went bankrupt, one of the company’s distributors gathered 11,500 tons of horse manure and trucked it to the edge of Cashion, Oklahoma. B&B Farms had been sending this manure to its network of worm growers, who would feed it to their hosts of red wrigglers. But when a New Yorker reporter came to visit, in the spring of 2003, the manure was just sitting there.

It would linger, east of town, in two heaping rows, 20 feet tall and as wide as two football fields, until it burst into flames one day.

Metaphorically, B&B Farms had done the same. Most of the people involved in the worm growers network, the largest in the country, had thought business was humming along. After B&B founder Greg Bradley died, however, it started to look like B&B Farms had been a Ponzi scheme.

The business had begun in 1998, when Bradley started selling worms to farmers across the country. The idea was that the worms could digest waste—manure, in particular—and poop it out as valuable “castings,” used to enrich agricultural soil. By 2003, Bradley had more than 2,000 farms growing worms, which he had promised to buy at $7 to $9 per pound. He told his growers that he had negotiated large contracts with giant farming operations that needed those worms.

Only when he died did it become clear that those buyers had never existed. Instead, Bradley was giving the worms he bought to new recruits and using the money from those new contracts to pay the farmers already on board.

These worms eat waste and turn it into valuable fertilizer. (Photo: Sterling College/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Before going into the worm business, Bradley had his share of legal troubles, with theft and sexual abuse, and had spent time in prison, Oklahoma investigators found. Did he mean to start over, only to find that his belief in worm composting was unfounded? Or did he intend all along to bilk people? (The fact that he used B&B Funds to support his brother’s auto-body station and an online pornography business started by an exotic dancer suggest that his intentions were not above board.) He came to Oklahoma from California in 1998, when he started B&B Farms, and died in 2003 from complications of pneumonia.

But for people drawn into Bradley’s ill-fated business, these were just details. Bradley had told worm growers that they could quickly triple their investment just by growing worms, and some true believers had sunk tens of thousands of dollars into buying and caring for worms. They paid B&B Farms a minimum of $8,000 (later raised to $12,000) to buy into the business, and often put still more money into worm-growing infrastructure.

At first, these investments did pay off, but when the company fell apart, worm growers were left with nothing more than thousands of worms that still needed to eat. Some tried to create sustainable worm-growing businesses on their own; other dumped the worms into the earth and let them fend for themselves.

More than a decade after the worm fiasco, composting has become big business, with cities from San Francisco to New York collecting and composting organic waste. But these programs don’t rely on worms to process waste—it’s rare to see a vermicomposting operation on the scale that Bradley proposed. And there’s one other big difference: even if compost is sometimes called “black gold,” no one these days thinks they’re going to quickly get rich processing manure. Sometimes, a pile of shit is just that, and nothing more.