December 20, 2009 by USA Post
Thomas Kinkade:COMPTON, Calif. — On the fringe of Compton’s manufacturing zone lies a row of boarded-up homes that shelter not humans but a billion-bug-and-worm breeding enterprise. It’s nicknamed “Worm City,” and Fred Rhyme is its mayor.
For more than 50 years, Rhyme, founder of Rainbow Mealworms, has been raising colonies of crickets, Madagascar hissing cckroaches and the star product of his business — piles of squishy, wiggly, red-orange mealworms.
Each day, 2 million to 3 million of his worms are packaged and distributed across the country, a highly desired commodity for major zoos, bait shops, pet stores, bird and reptile enthusiasts, and, on occasion, the film industry.
“I love my worms,” Rhyme said. “They’ve been good to me.”
Rhyme, 84, has known the value of worms since he was a boy digging for fishing bait. He began buying the beige bungalows, less than a mile from the Compton courthouse south of downtown Los Angeles, in the early 1960s. Soon after, his business took off and he made enough money to buy the entire row of houses.
He stripped the structures down to the walls and boarded up the windows. In came wood racks that hold row upon row of plastic trays that are his worm breeding grounds, where the cycle of life churns in industrial-strength numbers.
Rhyme, wearing a brown shirt and white cap, describes nature’s delicate course with a husky voice. It starts with a female beetle, which lays hundreds of eggs before it dies.
The eggs hatch into mealworms, which begin to scavenge for food, molting as they eat and grow into pupae, which then emerge from cocoons as beetles, starting the cycle anew.
“Altogether, the process takes about 80 days,” he said.
Rhyme raises more than 1 billion mealworms a year. His bounty also includes about 120 million worms that he keeps in a cold storage room, which keeps them in their adolescent stage, he said.
In addition, Rhyme breeds about 40 million crickets annually in nearby buildings. And like a good businessman seeking to diversify, he also raises about 10,000 Madagascar hissing roaches each year.
His roaches have appeared in the film “Men in Black” and on television’s “Fear Factor.”
But worms are the mainstay of Rhyme’s business. With such a massive colony, he thought it would be funny to put up “Welcome to Worm City” signs at each end of the block.
When he was a child in Minnesota, Rhyme took up fishing as a hobby, digging out earthworms from his mother’s garden for bait.
At 7, he realized he could make money off earthworms by selling them to local bait shops.
After serving in the merchant marine during World War II, he bought a small worm farm from his brother’s friend for $900.
“That’s how it started,” Rhyme said.
He sold his worms from his garage to every bait shop he could find in the phone book, all the while working for General Motors nearby as a maintenance painter.
But when his worm business began to take off, he quit his day job.
“It just got bigger and bigger,” Rhyme said. “It was then when I told my mother I was going to raise worms for the rest of my life.”
She thought he was crazy.
But he founded a multimillion-dollar business that has allowed him to raise three daughters and live in a 5,000-square-foot home nearby decorated with his prized collection of paintings by Thomas Kinkade.
He also expanded his business to other areas, such as Silverton, Ore., where he owns a 54-acre worm farm. In San Diego County he owns a 6-acre cactus farm, where he also breeds more crickets. The cactuses are used as worm food.
The recession hasn’t struck Worm City, Rhyme said. He attributes his success to the ongoing business from major zoos. He said zoos are 90 percent of his clientele.
Even competitors have good words for Rhyme.
“Fred and Betty are just wonderful,” said Russ Bassett, president of Bassetts Cricket Ranch in the San Joaquin Valley. Rainbow Mealworms is “a good competitor, and whenever you can speak positive about a competitor, that speaks in volumes.”
Some people said it’s Rhyme’s staff of worm workers who have made them into loyal fans.
“He’s got the greatest staff in all of California who really care about what they’re doing,” said Don Haukom, executive vice president of the Bug Co., a Ham Lake, Minn., outfit that, like Bassett’s, both buys from and sells to Rainbow. “I love those guys.”
All of the workers said they were taught how to grow the worms by Rhyme, who is dependent on them to keep operations moving.
But Rhyme said he still likes to stroll through the farm, occasionally dipping his hands into the trays teeming with worms, then letting them slip back into the tray.
“It feels like money,” he said.
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