Joe Criscione is an ex-bean counter who currently counts worms – thousands of them.

Since 2009, the accountant-turned-worm entrepreneur has bred about 460,000 earthworms, which now tunnel through the 250 industrial-sized 3.5-gallon buckets of soil and organic matter he provides for them in his 10,000-square-foot warehouse located in West Chicago. Actually, he says, the worms only take up about 20 percent of the space. The remainder is devoted to equipment and food and product storage.

The worms’ job description is simple: eat, procreate and produce worm castings (aka excrement). Criscione and his partner, Phil Miller, a former engineer, check daily on the progress/progeny of their worm colonies, hoping to hatch more cocoons and harvest the adult worms’ castings in order to then package the product they call Antaeus Organics, or non-toxic worm organic fertilizer. The final product comes in 30-pound bags.

The two avid gardeners say they’re hoping that their voluminous batch of hungry wigglers will keep their new green business in the black – sustainably green, that is, and growing.

Currently, the product is available locally at Good Earth Greenhouse in River Forest and Dressel’s Do it Best Hardware in Oak Park, and a few other garden centers. A bag retails for just over $20, he says.

A typical day for Criscione and Miller is all about feeding hundreds of thousands of worms, or using a special shaking machine with sifting screens to harvest their castings. After such a process, they start anew, creating a fresh ecosystem for their worm buddies.

In essence, Criscione and Miller are mining for organic “gold,” the good stuff organic gardeners love.

“We produce organic fertilizer, or worm castings specifically, and are trying to market that to the area,” says Criscione, who grew up in River Forest and now lives in Forest Park. “Being organic, our gardening product cuts down on the chemicals you put in your soil, and it is really a much better fertilizer for your garden and lawns.”

Initially, Criscione and Miller started their venture with a couple thousand worms, or two pounds worth. In short order, the hermaphroditic creatures reproduced exponentially, creating more than enough kin to produce a natural byproduct the duo could bag up, market and sell.

Overall, Criscione says it is their objective to educate everyone about the benefits of vermicomposting (using worms for gardening) as well as vermiculture (raising worms) to provide organic fertilizer to the metropolitan Chicago area. Even though there are a few other folks who sell earthworm castings, at this point, Criscione and Miller’s biggest competitors are the bagged mulches, composted cow and chicken manures, and so on.

What brought them to the point of transitioning from their previous white collar professions to raising earthworms full-time was simply a gardening preference. Criscione wanted to buy a nontoxic organic fertilizer and couldn’t find one.

“When we came across the idea of producing earthworm castings, it seemed to be the right solution,” he says.

Because their worms eat only a diet of grains, partially decomposed plants, plus peat moss, Criscione says they excrete the tiny pellets known as worm castings, or organic fertilizer, which is unsoiled by unnatural ingredients.

“The benefit of using worm castings over other fertilizers,” he adds, “is that there are no hormones, no steroids, and no chemicals added.”

Criscione also controls the diet of his earthworms in order to stave off pathogens or bacteria that can be found in other “green” products, such as bat guano or cow and chicken manure.

“This product isn’t going to hurt people or pets, and it is providing Mother Nature’s natural system of fertilization and soil rejuvenation [in order to create a] sustainable ecosystem in a garden or yard,” Criscione says.

In addition, the worm castings naturally possess traces of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous, plus some zinc, calcium and all those nutrients plants and the microbial community need to thrive, he says.

“It is extremely safe and non-toxic; I wouldn’t recommend eating it, but you could,” Criscione says. “It’s like eating dirt. It isn’t going to hurt you, and it is fabulous for building back your ecosystem and amending your soil.”