Business

Crickets add new chirp to farming

Ames woman goes all in on the source of protein

Gym-n-Eat Crickets owner Shelby Smith in her cricket farm. Smith is raising tens of thousands of crickets at her family farm as an alternative to traditional farming products. Photo by Dan Mika/Ames Tribune
Gym-n-Eat Crickets owner Shelby Smith in her cricket farm. Smith is raising tens of thousands of crickets at her family farm as an alternative to traditional farming products. Photo by Dan Mika/Ames Tribune
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AMES — In a garage on a farm just a mile east of Ames, there’s a set of plastic blue storage bins stacked onto a metal shelf in a break room.

Inside those boxes, tens of thousands of crickets are growing, chirping and reproducing into tens of thousands more.

These crickets are products of a novel farming idea, and in about a month, you’ll be able to buy them at the Main Street Farmers’ Market.

Shelby Smith, owner of Gym-n-Eat Crickets (a pun on the name of the cricket character in “Pinocchio”,) has run the operation since January out of the small side room in her parent’s equipment garage. Currently, she has about 50,000 crickets in her possession.

Smith spent her early career working in finance, something she said didn’t fulfill her personally. She returned to her parents’ farm last October to help with the harvest and decided she wanted to get into farming, but didn’t want to get into the crowded market of corn and soybean producers.

After listening to several podcasts where the hosts spoke about the health benefits of crickets, Smith decided to go all in on the bug in the middle of January.

“My dad encouraged me to look at other options other than the traditional corn and soybeans kind of thing,” Smith said. “He said if you can find a niche, by all means do that.”

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Smith purchased about 10,000 crickets to begin and set up their nests in the bins. Empty egg cartons are laid vertically in the bins to add enough surface space for the crickets to grow. If they’re too crowded, she said, crickets will become cannibalistic.

On top of the cartons is some chicken feed for the bugs to eat and a watering system that gets the crickets water without putting them in danger of drowning.

Once they’re a few weeks old, Smith puts a plate of wet peat moss in the box to allow the females to plant their eggs. She then moves the plates to a separate bin and they’re left until the eggs, ranging in the thousands, hatch and release larvae the size of pinheads.

The larvae are then placed in another bin, and the process begins again.

“I’ll have hundreds of thousands of little babies out of each of those,” she said.

Smith estimates she has room for about 200,000 crickets in her current space, so she expects to move the operation into a larger building at some point.

Scale is key for cricket farmers as about 3,000 crickets are needed to produce 1 pound of dry-roasted crickets for consumption. If she maximizes production in her current room, Smith can yield about 11 pounds of crickets per week.

To turn the raw crickets into food, Smith freezes the crickets until they die, then dry-roasts them in her parents’ ovens or grinds them into flour to use for cookies or protein bars.

“I have yet to get my mom to eat one of the whole-roasted crickets, but my dad eats them like popcorn,” she said.

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Although eating crickets sounds unappetizing, much of the world’s population already eats bugs as a cheap protein source. The United Nations considers insects to be a cheap and sustainable way to feed the world’s growing population without the need for large amounts of pasture or fertile cropland.

However, the largest problem Smith and the entire cricket farm industry faces is that much of the Western world gets a bad taste in its mouth just thinking about eating bugs.

Currently, Smith is marketing her products to her friends in the CrossFit and ultramarathon community as a cheap source of protein and other nutrients. She acknowledges getting people to consciously eat crickets is hard, but she’s betting her operation on the idea that enough people will be bold enough to add crickets as a small part of their diet.

“Ultimately, this is not going to replace a steak,” she said. “People who are going to eat a steak are going to eat steak. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how sustainable and good for you these are. If it doesn’t taste good in whatever you put it in, I’m not going to eat it, so nobody else is going to eat it. That’s kind of been my goal.”

Smith plans to keep, cook and sell all her products herself for the time being, as becoming a small-level supplier would cut her margins razor thin. She’ll sell the products at the Ames Main Street Farmers’ Market in the coming season, betting that Ames will have enough adventurous eaters and progressives to try eating the bugs shredded into flour, tossed in seasonings or mixed into peanut butter and chocolate bites.

“There’s going to be a lot of sampling. There will have to be,” she said with a laugh.

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