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Come to the Real Florida

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“It may be doubted whether there are any other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as the earthworm.”
~ Charles Darwin

For those of you who have visited Florida often, you’ve seen the Keys, you’ve seen Disney, you’ve seen Tampa’s Pirate Festival, you’ve “done” the Glades, done St Augustine, done Miami, et-yawn-cetera, but here’s one I’ll bet you haven’t “done.” Sopchoppy. According to a line I stole, “Sopchoppy is 35 miles and a hundred years southwest of Gainesville.” It’s also home to the 12th Annual Worm Grunting Festival.  They also call it “roopin'” in the Sopchoppy area, a scant 10 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, and “worm charming” in other areas including England, where they have similar festivals.

The earth in the Sopchoppy area is ideal for worms, and many people earn their living by harvesting and selling these creatures. It’s not a job for the faint of heart, though. Gruntin’ normally begins before sunrise, and it consists of strength, stamina and talent. And grunting is a tough skill to learn.

A single square mile of earth in this area can yield up to a million worms, and worms are important to the environment, since a single acre of Diplocardia mississippiensis can recompose 10 tons of leaves in one year. There are about 2,700 different types of earthworms on Earth, and the largest known earthworm was found in South Africa, at 22 feet long. The typical Diplocardia mississippiensis harvested in the Apalachicola Forest is smaller, running a beefy foot long, but far-removed from the smaller variety found all over the North.

Earthworms have up to 16 hearts (the ones in the Apalachicola Forest have 12) and they hatch from cocoons smaller than a grain of rice. They keep the earth soft and plants healthy; they’re 82% protein, edible and nutritious; and it’s been shown that eating earthworms reduces cholesterol. Yummy!

What more can you ask of a lowly animal that’s green (in the environmental sense), does wonders for the environment, and on top of all that is healthy to eat? There is one additional benefit: Their castings (poop) are used as a premium fertilizer.

One couple from Sopchoppy, Gary and Audrey Revell, has collected enough earthworms to reach to the moon and back. As the King of the Earthworms says, “I consider us part of it, ya know. We appreciate what we receive out of it … And we respect it, also … I was raised here in these woods, and I look at it as part of my backyard.” Here’s an excerpt from a Florida newspaper that beautifully summarizes just what it is that “The King” does:

“The Sopchoppy Symphony, as Revell plays it, starts with [a] groan and proceeds to a kind of mighty grunt, the kind a distressed 100-pound bullfrog might produce, an awesome, hair-raising, teeth-rattling sustained kind of grunt. First the earth begins to tingle. Then it quakes for dozens of feet in all directions … Then things get really weird. Within seconds the ground explodes with earthworms. They writhe in what seems to be ecstasy, but is more likely terror—as if the demons from hell are pursuing them from the netherworld.”

There’s still time enough to make your reservations and make it to this year’s festival, held at Worm Grunters’ Field in Sopchoppy, which is in the Apalachicola National Forest. Watch one of the several videos available on YouTube.

The festival starts earlier than most of this type. The day begins at 9 a.m. on the second Saturday in April as always, April 14th this year. Throughout the day there will be live music and contests, such as the Horseshoe Championship which offers a cash prize, and contests for bait-casting, plus hula hoop contests. While the children 16 and under compete in the grunting competitions (for which all materials are provided), adults can watch a film clip from CBS showing the late Charles Kuralt’s original news story, repeating throughout the day. (In addition to the CBS coverage, the festival has been featured on National Public Radio.)

In the evening, be sure to take advantage of the Worm Grunter’s Ball, and be the subject of conversation when you get back home and wear one of the variety of souvenir tees on sale, one of which says, “I did it all at the worm gatherers ball.” And who knows? Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to be named King or Queen of the festival.

As my son Marcus said, “…it got them on the map and their own reference in Wikipedia. I read they started the festival in 2000, when the population was 426. Just four years later, the population was 465 … 9% growth in just 4 years?!? Coincidence? Population growth, a sustained festival to raise revenue and It’s own Wiki entry? You cannot beat that … ”

Finally, for those with a scientific bent, be sure to check out the paper written by Kenneth C. Catania, Department of Biological Sciences, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN.  Loads of references along with links for many of them. Catania also wrote an article for Scientific American magazine titled “Worm Charmers” about his research.

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About Lou Novacheck