Bugs for Dinner: Big Cricket Farms Find Niche in Edible Insect Farming
April 16, 2015 | Rose Egelhoff
Rich in protein and requiring relatively few resources to raise, the United Nations says insects should be on our plates.
Though bugs make up part of a healthy, diverse diet in many non-Western cultures, Americans and Europeans generally consider eating insects to be disgusting, even ‘primitive.’ But a growing movement by edible insect enthusiasts like Kevin Bachhuber is looking to change this perception.
Eating certain types of insects is common is Thailand, where Bachhuber picked up a taste for them in 2006 while traveling. Fried crickets are a common bar food, and though “it feels a little Fear-Factor-y at first,” he says a couple beers help wash them down the first time. From then on, he says, “They’re really good!”
On returning to the U.S., Bachhuber looked for crickets, hoping to fry up his own snacks. But it was 2006, and crickets weren’t on anyone’s menu.
Skip ahead to 2013. The U.N. releases a report on the role of edible insects as part of a healthy and sustainable diet, and cricket-related enterprises begin popping up—cricket protein bars, baked cricket chips, cricket flour for baking. Bachhuber wondered who grew all those crickets, and an idea began to take shape.
So he called up every edible cricket venture he found on Kickstarter and asked about their supply chain, the obstacles to buying edible crickets, costs, how often and how much they bought. He eventually connected with Tiny Farms, a consulting firm based in San Francisco that specializes in industrial edible insect production. With their support, Kevin developed a business plan.
In April 2014 he and his girlfriend, Jaci Ampulski, moved to Youngstown, Ohio, bought an abandoned warehouse and started Big Cricket Farms, an operation that would soon house millions of crickets.
“Like any business or venture, the cash flow sucks for the first year,” Bachhuber tells me. Though they suffered a setback when a cricket paralysis virus hit the facilities over the winter, killing 90 percent of the livestock, high demand helped them weather the blow. Interest in edible crickets has “exploded,” says Bachhuber.
“We get calls and requests for quotes and orders from chefs and powder processors and bakers and pasta makers,” he says. “Every type of thing. We got one that was from a popcorn company, for powdered cricket flavoring like they do with cheddar flavoring…its really cool to see all the creativity.”
Bachhuber had not always been in the farming business. As he sees it, “having done just a little bit of everything is really helpful in starting a farm, especially a farm that doesn’t really have a pre-existing business model.”
And he really did do a little bit of everything, having spent eight years as a job-hopper, doing work that varied “from warehousing to redacting classified documents.”
At the height of the financial crash, Bachhuber worked in loan servicing at a bank.
“After a certain point, it was just talking to people who were losing their homes, all day, and not being able to do anything about it,” he recalls. Before that, he owned a comic book store for ten years and was heavily involved in community organizing work.
Bachhuber credits the same idealism that led him to community organizing with spurring his interest in edible insect production. Besides being a sustainable protein source, he sees cricket production as an industry with the potential to offer economic opportunity. The land costs are low, and scaling up does not significantly increase efficiency.
“I look at it as a way to add a step to the food chain,” he says. “But also, agriculture is a way out of poverty. It’s an established business model.”
Another appeal of cricket farming lies in the same pride that every farmer or gardener experiences when they harvest the fruit of their work, according to Bachhuber. Before starting Big Cricket Farms, both Bachhuber and Ampulski worked in fields that couldn’t be farther from the concrete, satisfying reality of being a food producer.
“She works in software and I was doing financial planning. They are both high-stress jobs and at the end of the day, there is not an actual, physical product that you can touch, and that’s something that is frustrating to both of us.”
Now, the couple spends most of their time cricket farming.
Ampulski looks forward to learning more about cricket production. Because they are working in an unusual area, “we can’t really look up growing facts on crickets the way you do on onions.”
After a few years developing their expertise in crickets, he also hopes to expand into other insects. “I’ll just quietly start growing small amounts of really tasty, weirdly named grubs at some point,” he predicts. “There are a bunch of other flavors out there.”