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Urban Farmer Sets His Sights on a New Venture:  Crickets

Friday, July 4, 2014 at 8:00 AM

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A cricket rests atop egg cartons at Big Cricket Farms in Youngstown, Ohio.

When you’re hungry, do you reach for potato chips or peanuts? What about a handful of crickets? One daring entrepreneur is bucking the “yuck” factor and opening the first US farm to grow insects exclusively for humans consumption. Ideastream’s Anne Glausser with QUEST Science takes us there.

(Sounds of crickets in the “breeders tent”)

I’m not in a forest.  I’m not in a park.  I’m not even outside.  I’m here in an old rundown warehouse in Youngstown Ohio—the perfect place, says Kevin Bachhuber, to grow crickets.  “So these are our babies.  They’re actually hardening up right now,” said Bachhuber. 

Bachhuber’s a proud father.  He’s the owner of Big Cricket Farms which operates out of this warehouse.  The crickets live in big black square tents that sit right on the warehouse floor.  Inside the tents are bright lights, an interior like tin foil and stacks of Rubbermaid tubs. 

Crack a lid on one of those tubs and you’ll find cricket city. “There are little cricket high-rises made out of egg carton.  If you look here, the little tiny grains of rice things—wow, there’s a lot of them—are the eggs,” said Bachhuber.

These guys munch on organic chicken feed and will mature rapidly, within 2 months. While some of these crickets will end up sold whole at local farmers markets, most will be ground up and made into “cricket flour,” a nutrient dense product that can be used in baked goods.  Bachhuber says they’re in talks with energy bar companies as well as chip and cookie manufacturers who are interested in buying cricket flour in volume. 

That could be because insects are such a rich source of protein and minerals. They’re commonly used in zoo and pet food.  In other countries, people have been eating bugs for decades. 

Here, though, there’s the cultural “yuck” factor to contend with.

“If I said the word insect to the average person on the street, immediately they’ll think of a cockroach,” said Sonny Ramaswamy, the Director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture within the USDA. “So there is that sort of a creepy-crawly-hairy-cockroachy type of a mental image that’s created…so that’s one thing that you’ve got to overcome,” he said.

And there’s good reason to make the critters more approachable to western palates, says Ramaswamy, who by the way cooks up curried crickets for DC crowds when he gets the chance. In addition to their high protein content and rapid reproduction rate, “their ecological footprint is pretty significantly lower than other things.  They use a lot less resources—the amount of energy needed, the amount of water needed, the amount of land needed and things like that,” he said. 

To produce a pound of cricket requires one gallon of water and two pounds of feed, says Bachhuber.  The same amount of beef requires anywhere from 400 to 2000 gallons of water and 25 pounds of feed. “They are marvelously efficient little digesters, and growers,” said Bachhuber.

Growing crickets, or any insect for that matter, is uncharted water for regulatory agencies.

“Insect farms are new,” said Ashley McDonald with the Ohio Department of Agriculture.  “They would be new to us.  And we don’t regulate them at this time,” she said.

McDonald says they do regulate food processors and so in that sense the operation would be treated like any other food facility when it comes to good practices.

At Big Cricket Farms, Bachhuber takes food safety to the point of self-described paranoia. “These guys should be clean and safe.  We don’t want to destroy our industry before it starts or anything,” he said.

They welcome inspectors and want their operation to be a model for other start-up insect farms. 

The FDA is working on insect-specific regulations, but they aren’t finished yet.

As for when you can expect to see cricket on the menu or in your protein bar, it might not be that far off.  Big Cricket Farms will debut their product this August.

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Arts and Culture, Food, Natural Sciences, Community/Human Interest, Environment, Health, Science

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