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Brothers' worm farm washes away in Withlacoochee floodwaters

RIDGE MANOR — Brothers William and Terry Payne were close to realizing their dream. Six more months and their worm farm would have been open for business, bringing in extra cash to make ends meet.

They had the permits, a business partner and an estimated quarter-million worms. But Hurricane Irma and the severe flooding she brought to neighborhoods along the Withlacoochee River foiled their plan.

"We thought we jacked everything up high enough, but the water just kept coming," said 56-year-old William, standing shirtless in his back yard, now grass-less and flooded from the river behind it. "We started with one little worm bed and built an empire. ... But the business never even got off the ground."

Before the storm hit on Sept. 10, the brothers say, they had about $50,000 worth of worms in 17 worm beds, or wood-framed habitats set up for breeding. Some beds sat near the banks of the river; others were built up beneath their home — a manufactured home in Talisman Estates that sits about 14 feet in the air atop cinder blocks. But all of them were too low to escape the floodwaters.

The worst of it came in the days after Irma, when more 6 feet of brown, murky water flowed into the yard, over the worm beds and across the Paynes' dirt road into yards throughout the neighborhood.

"I could see all my worms floating down the road, and all I could do was count the money we were losing," said Terry, 62.

For days, they watched birds swoop down into the street to snatch up the drowned worms as food before flying away.

Terry said the business venture started a few years ago. The brothers, both retired and on disability, live together with their mother at 3231 Dublin Road. With little money and lots of time on their hands, the pair saw a demand from fishermen for bait and decided to give the worm business a try.

"It was something to pass the time away that could make us a little money at the same time," Terry said. "We were just trying to make a decent living some kind of way."

William, retired from the produce business, said he hoped they would make enough to "eat better."

A friend donated supplies, like wood and wire, to frame the beds, which they filled with cow manure from a nearby farm. After tilling the soil, they layered it with peat moss, a nutrient-rich, water-absorbent soil additive, and planted store-bought worms.

Together, the brothers would feed the worms — half red, half wiggler — three times a week and make adjustments to the beds to regulate the temperature. Then, they watched them multiply.

Although the river this week receded back into its banks after the fifth-highest crest in history, much of the yard is still soggy, plagued with hundreds of hopping frogs and the constant buzz of insects. Filling the air is the smell of sewage and rotten meat emanating from a freezer where food went bad during the power outage. Last week, William said, he looked down to see an 8-foot alligator at his feet.

"City people don't know nothin' about this country life," he said.

He estimated it will be about six months before the soil dries completely and they can begin to rebuild the farm.

"This isn't something that happens overnight. ... It takes time," William said, wiping tears off his cheeks. "It may take me another year to get it going again, but I won't let it beat me. I ain't quittin'."

On Monday, William stood surveying the property while Terry hauled buckets of brown water from a neighbor's well to the bottom step of the back porch.

"It's the only way to flush the commode," William said, adding that their home has been without power for about 30 days.

They use another neighbor's outside shower to bathe, William often doing so with his clothes on to save money at the laundromat.

"I don't want to deal with this, but I'm going to. I have to. What else can you do?" William said. "We will make it and get it back together. I won't let no storm beat me."

Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com. Follow @mareevs.

 
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