The Country’s First Edible Insect Farm
Kevin Bachhuber founded Big Cricket Farms in Youngstown, Ohio in 2014 in response to growing water shortages, the rising costs of protein production and a simple love of eating insects inspired by a trip to Thailand. Big Cricket Farms is the first government certified food grade insect farm in this country, producing up to 1,200 pounds of crickets per month. Not only has the farm garnered a lot of national attention, they can’t even keep up with demand. Below, we talk with Bachhuber about how economic revitalization plays a role in his career, what it means to own and operate a cricket farm, and the future of edible insects in the United States.
AndrewZimmern.com: Why did you decide to start a cricket farm?
Kevin Bacchuber: Well, I didn’t wake up at six years old and decide I wanted to be a cricket farmer. In 2006, I went to Thailand for a month. Eating bugs is a very normal part of the cuisine there. They give you little bowls with crickets and bamboo worms, and if you go to the night markets, there are giant water beetles and scorpions. I came back to America and thought, “This is the best idea. We should raise crickets.”
When a FAO report came out in 2013 that said two billion people worldwide eat bugs and maybe you should too, I called up the people who were doing Kickstarters for the [cricket] protein powder and asked what kind of pains they were looking to address with their cricket supply. The biggest issue was the food grade, a lot of people were getting them from Thailand, and there are supply chain issues there. So in April of last year, we moved from Sacramento to Youngstown and started raising crickets.
AZ.com: Why Ohio?
KB: I looked over what the expense modeling would look like and knew we couldn’t do this in California, so I moved to Ohio. At 27 cents a square foot, you can’t beat that. There’s also a real economic revitalization bent to what we do. I’m super Jewish, and there’s this Hebrew concept of tikkun olam, or “repair of the world.” The idea is that you make the world a better place for your grandchildren than it was for your grandparents, and to take on a task that you’re not going to see completed in your lifetime, but that is good for the world as a whole. Zimbabwe has better infant mortality rates than Youngstown, Ohio. There are a lot of Third World countries that have better literacy rates. So, we’re tough types of people. Nothing worth doing is easy.
It’s also conveniently located. There are two major rail lines that run through it. It’s an hour from the shipping port, so it has a good infrastructural base and, like I said, unreasonably cheap. You could be one of a million forgettable startups in San Francisco or you could be the one that stands out in a smaller space, and I feel like we’ve been able to leverage that a lot.
AZ.com: What does it take to start a cricket farm?
KB: It takes climate control, some boxes so that they don’t get out, egg cartons, and a couple of friends who are handy. It kind of takes a diverse range of skills to get it started. But, at the same time, there are thousands of people who rear small amounts of crickets for their geckos all through the United States, so it’s not that uncommon of a skill. Getting them to survive generation to generation to generation is the challenge, although we were pretty good at that from the start. But, please don’t let me undersell the difficulty of rearing any sort of animal, especially on a larger scale.
AZ.com: Do you start with cricket eggs?
KB: We did initially. There are a dozen or so very large cricket farms that produce live crickets for Petco and other pet stores. There’s 50 medium-size farms that supply bait shops or bass fisheries, so we’re able to get good egg stock from those. And we’re the first government certified and inspected food grade insect farm in the U.S.
It’s 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity in the egg hut. The eggs spend about nine days incubating. Then they finally hatch, and for a couple more weeks we keep it very humid. When they hit the young juvenile stage, we drop the humidity out so that they can continue to shed. Otherwise, they don’t and they die. It takes about six to eight weeks from hatch to harvest. We raise the crickets used for powder to adulthood, and those are the ones that lay the eggs for the next generation. We harvest our culinary, gourmet-grade crickets younger, because they get ovipositors, like a long stick out the back that they deposit their eggs into the laying substrate with. That thing gets stuck between your teeth like you wouldn’t believe, so we harvest them right before that starts to develop.
AZ.com: Is it just the age that differentiates the quality?
KB: The gourmet crickets are also finished on a different feed because they take on the flavor of what they eat. For those, we either use fresh fruits and vegetables, or right now we’re starting to do some experiments with barley‑based grains.
AZ.com: Who are you selling crickets to?
KB: The protein powder companies are a little pickier on pricing and their scale is higher, so I typically only do one or two contracts at a time with them. Miya’s Sushi in New Haven is one of our customers, but the place I always like to feature is a Youngstown restaurant called Suzie’s Dogs & Drafts. They’re selling somewhere between 500 and 700 hot dogs a week with deep fried crickets as a topping. It’s nice that there’s a lot of city pride in what we’re doing.
AZ.com: How many pounds of crickets do you produce every month?
KB: My maximum capacity is about 6,000 pounds every two months. Realistically, we’re producing 600 to 1,200 pounds a month. With the type of crickets that we raise, there’s about 1,400 or so per pound. There’s only about 1,000 domestic house crickets per pound, so they’re meatier and great for your powder.
AZ.com: How did you fund the farm?
KB: We self‑funded it. I turned down a lot of venture capital, because at the root, it’s agriculture, and I haven’t felt like the venture capitalists understand the long turnarounds of agriculture. It’s a farm. In the end, you make money however you can.
AZ.com: What do you think it will take to get the masses interested in eating crickets?
KB: Can I be honest? Individual consumers have not made an active food choice in America since 1925. It’s the people who control their food that you have to get interested. I mean, people eat pink slime and Chicken McNuggets. They’ll eat bugs if it’s presented to them in a mass market like Nestle. Really it’s more about making sure that you have a consistent supply chain for those large corporate customers and that you can fill that order, and the American public will just go with the flow. If they don’t, it will be the same way that it works with carmine, where it’s just called Red 4.
AZ.com: What’s your pitch for the sustainability of crickets?
KB: That you should fund every university you can to find out whether or not they’re truly sustainable. Each generation solves the problems of the past and creates the problems of the next generation to solve. I really don’t think that crickets are the end-all and be-all. I think they’re a step in the sustainable food web, but nothing you monoculture is going to be long‑term sustainable. But it really opens up the conversation. All those documentarians who say, “crickets are the gateway bug,” I feel that’s pretty accurate. It’s way easier to get somebody to eat a cricket in America than a worm, grub, larvae or maggot.
AZ.com: What’s your favorite way to eat crickets?
KB: Tacos. And I really like the cricket pesto. We ran out of pine nuts one day, and we had crickets in the freezer. My girlfriend was like, “The crickets taste like nuts.” So we ground them up and put them in the pesto.
AZ.com: How often do you eat crickets?
KB: More often than I’m willing to admit.
Kevin Bachhuber was born and raised in the frozen tundra of Green Bay, Wisconsin. He has a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin Steven’s Point, one of the nation’s top schools for wildlife conservation and natural resources. A lifelong urban farmer, Kevin founded Big Cricket Farms in response to growing water shortages, the rising costs of protein production, and a simple desire to eat bugs with friends.