Grundy County, Tennessee, may seem an unlikely place for a French entrepreneur to set up shop, but the 770-acre farm in Coalmont purchased by Bruno Durant in 2001 was the perfect site for Silver Bait LLC, meeting the list of specifications in Durant’s business plan for breeding and selling fishing worms.
Becoming a worm farmer wasn’t Durant’s original life plan while growing up on a dairy farm north of Paris, France. But in a roundabout way, his agricultural background led him into the career. Lessons learned from his early experiences have resulted in a very successful business that has not only been good for the Durant family but also for the economy of Grundy County.
As anyone who has grown up on farm knows, you must be a “jack-of-all-trades.” Not only do you need to know how to raise crops and animals, you must also be skilled in the construction and repair of equipment, machinery and buildings necessary to raise and harvest crops and livestock.
Durant gained these skills and work ethic on the farm and in secondary school where he took mechanical and engineering classes. It was while still living on the family farm that he first became interested in raising worms for use in composting.
After secondary school, he completed a two-year degree to become a physical education teacher. However, Durant, an entrepreneur and inventor at heart, gave up teaching after a couple of years and in 1983 started his own business raising worms primarily for the composting industry. At the time, only a small percentage of the worms were sold for fishing bait.
After realizing that he needed to increase his knowledge of marketing, sales and finance, he went back to school for two years of business classes.
Durant made his first trip to the United States to investigate the U.S. worm market and see how worm farms in this country were set up. He quickly found that in the U.S., the worm market for fishing was much larger than for composting and began to rethink his business plan.
“At the time, there was very little consistency in the quality of the worms and the ability of the farmers to deliver them on time and in the quantity needed,” Durant said. “I figured that if I could find a way to deliver a quality product on time, when needed, I just might have a successful business.” And that is just what he has done. His family-owned company is the largest worm farm in the United States. The company’s distribution area now covers 25 states from Wisconsin to the Texas-Louisiana border down to Florida and as far up the East Coast as West Virginia. This feat has been accomplished with a lot of hard work, ingenuity and a vertically integrated, self-sustaining business plan.
Durant began his business in the U.S. in 1993 on a leased farm in north Georgia. However, the land’s proximity to Metro Atlanta meant it was much more valuable to the owner as residential real estate than farmland. Durant lost his lease and began looking for affordable land more centrally located to the majority of the sport fishing industry. He found that site in Coalmont in 2001.
Knowing that in order to guarantee timely delivery of the quality product the industry demanded, he needed to be able to control each phase of the process. To accomplish this goal, he took care in choosing the ideal site, then put into place practices that allow him to control as many variables as possible.
Starting out with a limited budget, he controlled costs by locating and purchasing affordable land in an area central to 70 percent of the fishing market in the U. S. — within a nine to 11 hour drive — an area that also offered a large labor pool and a low cost of doing business.
He bought enough land to grow the corn to feed the worms and purchased the equipment to grind the feed on-site. He set up a mixing plant to produce all the concrete needed for the construction of the barns, worm beds and other buildings and used his engineering knowledge to design and build the structures.
To ensure that quality peat moss for the worm bedding was available when he needed it, Durant bought a 125-acre peat bog in Florida where his workers harvest all the peat the operation needs.
Packaging the worms was also an area Durant wanted to control. He believed that by producing his own containers he could save money and provide a better-quality package to ensure that the worms were healthy when they arrived at the point of sale. He designed and set up a plastic cup manufacturing operation in one of the buildings on the farm and is constantly working to improve the design and functionality of product. “The way our worms are packaged, they can live about eight weeks in very good condition if they’re kept in a cooler at 40 to 45 degrees,” said Durant.
The automated cup making process needs no workers to supervise it. “One machine runs 24/7, and when we start peak production in mid-February, both will run nonstop. We just have to remove the cups twice a day and refill the hopper with plastic pellets. If there is a problem, an alarm sounds. The farm also has a machine shop and repair shop to take care of building and repairing the machinery used in the business.
“Once the worms are packed, we truck them out to our distributors in our own fleet of refrigerated trucks with our own drivers. We are a vertically integrated company. By controlling every step of the process, we can control our costs and the quality of our product to bring the best value to our customers.
“We have about 35 to 40 full-time workers year-round and hire seasonal workers during the peak months. We will have a total of about 70-80 workers in season.
“We start shipping out to our Southern distributors about mid-February and to our Northern distributors the beginning of March. The season runs through about mid-November in the South, a little earlier in the northern part of our distribution area. We start breeding the worms from about September to November, then sell them from about mid-February through mid-November.
“The process starts with adult worms being placed in beds of peat moss mixed with ground corn. After they lay eggs, the adults are removed from the beds and sold. The baby worms are kept in the feeding mix until they are mature and lay eggs, and the cycle is repeated. The castings, waste material, are sold for use in organic fertilizer utilized in the garden and nursery industry.
“There is no waste. We use everything. We control the quality by producing everything we need. About the only thing we buy is the plastic pellets we use to make the cups we ship the worms in.”
Both Bruno and Veronica Durant worked long hours to make the business a success — all while raising their two sons. Every member of the family did his or her part on the farm to get the work done. Older son Alex studied business at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, and returned to work with his parents at Silver Bait about six years ago.
Silver Bait, the company Durant began in north Georgia, has seen steady growth for the past 25 years and the farm in Coalmont has expanded as the business has grown. The company currently has 400,000 square feet under roof with plans to add another 80,000 square feet of worm beds and 40,000 square feet of warehouse space in the next 12 to 15 months. With this expansion, Silver Bait will also be increasing the number of full-time and seasonal employees.
In 2018 — through a partnership among Grundy County government, Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative, Silver Bait, Campbell Poultry and several state and federal economic development agencies — three-phase electric power was extended to the farm. “Our expansion and growth would not have been possible without three-phase power,” said Durant. “Our corn grinders and irrigation system are now being powered by other fuels, but we will be changing them over to electricity now that we have three-phase electric service. The equipment will be more efficient and reliable, will need less maintenance and will run at a lower cost. This will help us keep the cost to our customers low.”
When asked how many worms Silver Bait sells each year, Durant replied, “Millions and millions! I couldn’t say how many!” Of course, the big question is whether Bruno Durant fishes. With a laugh, he responded, “I don’t have time! But I enjoy it when I get to go.”