It’s hard to hear anything over the chirping. Cardboard boxes filled with egg cartons and sheets of plastic buzz with thousands of young-adult crickets calling out to one another to mate. The brush of the insects’ legs against the various surfaces sounds like hail on a tin roof. Their feed, which sits on top of the cartons on paper plates, looks like a cross between sawdust and sand.
Gabriel Mott, the chief operating officer of Aspire Food Group, yells above the noise and points inside one of the boxes. “You see the one with the wings?” he asks. “That’s a female. They get their wings at their final stage.”
We’re standing inside an old lumberyard in Austin, Texas, that Mott’s company has repurposed into an industrial cricket farm. The 13,000-square-foot space contains multiple rooms stacked with hundreds of boxes, each one home to crickets living through their six-week life cycle. Cricket farmers and geopolitical futurists speculate that entomophagy, the practice of eating insects, considered ordinary in other countries, could eventually be considered normal in the West.
Many entomophagy proponents claim that 80 percent of the world’s nations eat insects, a figure that’s often cited but difficult to substantiate. Mott believes that the number is misleading. He points to a more conservative estimate from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which says 20 percent of the world’s consumers eat insects. Regardless of the precise number, though, relatively few members of the world’s insect-eating population reside in Western countries, the market that Aspire is trying to win over. Mott and others at the forefront of the country’s burgeoning cricket-farming industry are banking on the risky proposition that a taste for insects in the West will jump from obscurity to trend to normalcy.
The practice of farming crickets for human consumption is still in its infancy in the U.S., and the crickets here are participating in an experiment to discover how to create a better edible insect. Like with most livestock, there are a number of variables—temperature, humidity, feed, water sources, housing—that are constantly adjusted to create a bigger, tastier, and more nutritious product. The crickets live to breed and then meet their deaths at the hands of an industrial freezer. Eventually, they are churned into cricket powder or sold wholesale to restaurants or companies making cricket products, like Exo’s cricket-flour protein bar or Bitty Foods’s cricket baking flour.
Aspire Food Group is one of four major farms in the nation that breeds insects specifically for food. Mott founded the company as an MBA student in 2013 with a group of his McGill University classmates, using $1 million in seed money from the Hult Prize, a student start-up competition for social enterprise. As part of their Hult proposal, the team visited farms in Thailand, a country already home to several edible-cricket farms, and conducted additional research in Kenya, Ghana, and Mexico, where the insects are often caught in the wild and used as food.
Aspire now has three farms in the United States, Ghana, and Mexico. Currently, they have only 10 employees in the U.S., each working long hours. It’s almost impossible to find experienced cricket rearers, Mott says, as the field is relatively new. But because crickets are quite hardy, the workers, who are trained on the job, don’t need to be particularly skilled. While Aspire builds a new farm adjacent to its current Austin space, one of the staff’s main tasks is maintaining their temporary space as best they can. After each six-week lifecycle, they empty the room and scrub everything down before bringing in a new batch of crickets. This is done in part to keep out spiders—the foxes or wolves of the cricket-farming world. When I visited, Mott kept an eye out for intruding spider webs—at one point during our conversation, he reached into a box to crush a spider with his fingers. “I used to be bothered by having spider bits all over my hand, but I very quickly got used to that,” Mott said.
Ideal conditions for raising crickets, Mott told me, are between 30 and 35 degrees Celsius and 40 to 70 percent humidity. Very little intervention is required: When it comes time for breeding, all the cricket rearers have to do is place some soil into the boxes for the insects. Once the eggs are produced, the farmers take them out of the soil for incubation (each female lays between 100 and 200 eggs, but the farmers will only incubate some of them, limited by the number of crickets they can raise at a time). Unlike bees or ants, crickets don’t have a larval stage, instead hatching fully formed from eggs after about a week and growing straight to adulthood. When it comes time to harvest the adult crickets, the farmers simply place them in Ziploc bags for freezing.
After our walk through the farm, we stop by the freezers, where Mott pulls out a two-pound Ziploc bag full of dead crickets. He estimates there are about 1,000 crickets to a pound. This is the insects’ final resting place: Insects get their heat from outside their bodies and have very little ability to regulate their temperature internally. When crickets get too cold, they go into a torpor state—their biological response—and essentially go to sleep until they die. Eventually, the bugs freeze solid.
Big Cricket Farms, the first urban cricket farm, has been around for a year longer than Aspire, and has seen the market grow steadily since it started. “At any one time there are about 6 million crickets in the facility,” says Kevin Bachhuber, the CEO and founder of the company, based in Youngstown, Ohio. Bachhuber’s farm harvests about 140 pounds of crickets every couple of days. “My demand has been so robust that over the summer I finished getting a secondary facility up and running. That one probably carries between 4 to 8 million crickets at any given time.” Bachhuber says. “The crickets are sold four weeks before they’re finished being raised … so we’ve had to be selective at times about who ends up with our crickets. I’ve raised my prices maybe six times so far.”
There remains debate within the vegetarian community as to whether insect consumption can be incorporated into vegetarianism. Proponents say one of the strongest arguments for crickets is their ability to provide a lean animal protein—about 21 grams of protein per 100 grams of cooked weight, according to the United Nations—that requires less space, less water, and produces fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than beef, which has slightly more protein at 28 grams per 100. (However, one recent study suggests that crickets’ potential protein might be slightly overstated.)*
Mott hopes that Aspire’s next space will have zero landfill output—currently, their insects drink water through a biodegradable plant matter, which the company composts later. A local mill mixes the crickets’ organic grain-based feed. Farms sometimes add other ingredients to bolster their feed, like flax seeds and essential fats to increase the level of omega 3s.
Megan Miller, the founder and CEO of Bitty Foods, has made a point to try each multiple farms’ cricket powders and provide specific feedback to the farmers. “There are times we’ve worked with a farmer and their powder hasn’t worked for us, but it’s not because it’s low quality,” Miller says. “Instead it’s because, for instance, our cookies need the fat content of the powder to be relatively low because it doesn’t mix very well with other ingredients. If the farmer decides to mix up his feed and start feeding his crickets a higher-fat grain … the powder we get sticks together in a way that doesn’t work for us.”
Though U.S. farmers have been breeding crickets as feed for fish, chickens, and reptiles for the past 70 years or so, cricket farming for humans is relatively new, and regulations haven’t quite caught up.** While the insects are alive, companies aren’t legally required to distinguish between crickets raised as animal feed and those raised for human consumption. But once they die and become a food product, they need to be treated the same way as any other food—cricket farmers have to comply with the same regulations of labeling, packaging, and delivering a consistently frozen product as someone who produces bags of frozen mixed vegetables.
To figure out a way into the American diet, Aspire has been researching other foods that have become mainstream only relatively recently, like kale, quinoa, and sushi. Mott believes the key could be acquisition by a large food company, like Cargill, Tyson, or Monsanto. Bachhuber claims that Big Cricket Farms has already undergone a technical review by one of the large food companies, though he declined to say which one.
Aspire, in the meantime, is focusing on learning as much as it can about its unusual crop: The company is currently looking for an expert entomologist to work as their director of research, lending some authority to the production of a product that most Americans still view as a novelty, like a scorpion lollipop bought at a science center or a worm at the bottom of a tequila bottle. Mott says Aspire’s new space will have lab-quality conditions, equivalent to the animal-research labs—a standard much higher than any livestock facility.
“The more serious we look and more accountable we hold ourselves,” he said, the more confidence people will have in the product.”