Worms work steadily along no matter who's in, who's out, or who's running the White House, and the family that stays close to worms is very down to earth indeed.
President Carter's first cousin, Hugh Carter, member of the Georgia Senate and undisputed dean of the Plains worm fanciers, has a steady worm business in suburban Plains and grows these modest animals back of his house in a series of cinder-block pits somewhat like compost bins or over-sized graves.
On a mild day, once the yoke of winter is broken, (temperatures of 18 degrees Farenheit this winter did the palm trees no good) the visiter may say, "Plains is very nice, but is this all there is?" and make arrangments to go see the worms.
Hugh Carter himself is in Atlanta much of the time, naturally, with the legislature, but his father, Alton Carter (the President's uncle) is always to be found in the Carter Antique Shop. The name Alton is pronounced like the name Al, with "ton" tacked on the end. It upsets all the Carters for one to say "All-ton."
Alton Carter, on the two occasions a reporter visited with him, was quite busy with his farm bells. He sld one to a fellow from Wisconsin who was driving to Florida with his wife. His bell cost $30 - one is sure it would have been more than $100 in a fancy urban store - and he was enchanted. "I am really happy, I am really happy about this," he kept saying, as he stuffed the bell in the car trunk. His wife, exhorted to be thrilled also, did not seem as pleased as her husband. It is a matter of common observation that wives are rarely as pleased as husbands are with old hardware, especially on motor trips to Florida when they see the hatbox moved over the spare tire to make room for the bell.
"You are nice folks," said Alton Carter, who went back in the roomy old-fashioned store which has an ambience somewhat like a barn, and brought out a brown paper sack with a bottle of muscadine wine.
"Don't drink myself," he said, "but I've always been intersted in grapes. Used to help my Daddy pick him - we made hundreds of gallons of wine back then in the early years of this century."
He was gracious about the worm farm, in his son's absence, and gave complete and flawless directions for reaching it. Of course anybody could tell you where it is - you just go down Hudson Street a ways and turn right and in a little bit you see two large trees and turn right in between them, and go around past the greenhouse - watch out, if you turn wrong there, you go to the house, which is nice enough but not where the worms are.
Alton Carter sent his visitor on his way with a mimeographed recipe for wine - most people don't put in enough sugar, he says, and the wine goes sour.
A good many Southerners have had uncles who made scuppernong wine (the great bullace grape of the South which is positively alive with wasps from July on) and in many instances it is foul beyond belief, probably because too little sugar was used in the first place. Alton Carter's wine is said to be excellent.
But on to the worm farm - the place is silent, and Woodrow Thomas, who answers the phone if you call long distance and who says "I always be here," has evidently been called away.
The pines are rather thin and very straight, and the worm bins, raised two cinder blocks high, are about 7 by 32 feet each, and there must be 150 of them, some on a flat place, others across a swale.
Birds here are tame. A tremendous pileated woodpecker, drilling away at a tre trunk only seven feet above the ground, pauses to look at you, then resumes his task, convinced no harm is at hand. You can approach to 10 feet.
The worms, for their part, are not visible. A shed nearby contains dozens of bales of Canadian peal moss and many sacks of catfish food, and it is almost certain the worms are working on both in their pits. Catfish food is a manufactured product (as one may also find dog food, cat food, rabbit food, etc., at large feed stores) designed to be sprinkled into ponds where catfish are raised, insuring a much heavier catch per acre than if the catfish made do with what nature provides.
Orders come in from all over the country for theses worms. It might be said here that worms, to the casual observer, are all much the same, though like anything else there are many different kinds!
For years Carter has advertised in magazines such as Mechanics Illustrated, Organic Gardening, and others that have readerships liable to order worms.
The nerve center of this particular empire is not in the lovely woods with the pileated woodpeckers and the dappled light and the soft silence, but in carter's Antique Store in town, and also in the Carter Worm Farm Office, a few feet down the main street from the antique store.
Liz Hale of Plains can be found in the store, where from time to time she directs visitors back to the Farm Bell Department, as you might say, or to the souvenir ashtrays. There is time enough for her to open the worm mail and answer it. She handles only the free-literature part of the business. The worm ads invite readers to send for free literature, showing how one can raise worms for profit. Hale gets about 150 to 200 of these requests a day, and sends back an eight-page leaflet, "Big Money in Fishworms," which assures readers that "when you answered our ad, it was the wisest move you ever made."
There are further publications available, and for $18.95 you get seven booklets, each dealing with some phase of wormery, with 1,000 live red wiggler worms included.
East of the Mississippi the worms are prepaid, and you can get 100,000 of them for $600. You get 1,000 for $6.95.
Now as for bedding down the worms, 15 pounds of worm bedding is $15.95. It is "ideal for keeping worms alive and on hand at home or office." When you reflect that the complete worm library is seven booklets, you will see that this account merely scratches the surface.
Hale's cousin, Alice Harris of Plains, handles the mail orders for worms, the same way Liz does for literature. In late winter, even, the farm ships out between 50,000 and 100,000 worms a day. (A hundred pint sized cups and lids, suitable for packing 100 red wigglers costs $9.50).
"People ask what is a worm farm," Hale said. "We get tickled at that."
"With all the attention on Plains, with Jimmy Carter inthe White House, I think we get maybe a little more mail about worms, but not all that much," said Hale.
Hugh Carter heard a fellow who was raising crickets (for fish bait) say about 1949 that business was so good he could hardly keep up with the deman.
This got Carter to thinking, and a few days later he started raising crickets, using an old coffin from Alton Carter's store as a breeding bed. He gradually expanded from crickets into worms, learning many techniques the hard way, which led him to write what Life called (in 1959) his "classic 18 Secrets of Successful Worm Raising."
It has not all been roses, but Carter has 30 acres and a fine suburban house to show for it. And, except when the pileated woodpeckers get going, it is pretty quiet work.