Would You Like Crickets With That?
Youngstown is known for lots of things: it was a backbone of the American steel industry, it had notorious corruption among politicians controlled by the mob and it’s a poster-child for post-industrial Rust Belt destitution. It is also home to the country’s first food-grade cricket farm.
Kevin Bachhuber, founder of Big Cricket Farms, was introduced to insects as a food source while visiting Thailand in 2006.
“You get your beer. You’re watching these crazy Thai soap operas, and you get your little bowl that would normally have peanuts or pretzels, and it’s deep-fried bamboo worms or crickets, and it enables that hand-to-mouth thing super easily,” Bachhuber said.
When he returned home, the cravings were still there, but there wasn’t an easy way to go about obtaining edible crickets.
“When I got back to the US, I was like ‘I really wish I could buy dry-roasted crickets at the store.’ I couldn’t. I looked around to see if anybody else was interested. They weren’t. So I kind of mothballed the idea,” Bachhuber said.
Things changed in 2013 when the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations released a report saying insects were a critical component to food security that could help reduce greenhouse gases and lower the cost of food.
Raising a pound of crickets requires one gallon of water and two pounds of feed. For comparison, raising a pound of beef requires 2,000 gallons of water and 25 pounds of feed. Crickets also emit 100 times fewer greenhouse gases than cattle.
“All of a sudden there was a huge amount of interest,” Bachhuber said.
Bachhuber met with Tiny Farms, a San Francisco-based company that offers open-sourced insect-farm kits to consumers, who helped him model his business. He moved to Youngstown and started the farm in April.
He chose crickets because they seemed like a good way to introduce Americans to eating insects.
“They don’t have worm, or grub, or larva in the name. Most Americans are pretty familiar with crickets, like Jiminy, or the one from Mulan, or the one chirping in the basement,” Bachhuber said. “It’s not like roaches where you’re terrified if you see one.”
Bachhuber said the desire for crickets has exceeded his expectations.
“I expected to spend a year or two in obscurity raising crickets. I was taken off guard by how much demand we’ve gotten, and how fast it’s ramped up,” he said. “We, as an industry on the supply-side, need to catch up.”
It’s been a struggle to stay on top of things.
“It’s kind of a balancing act, making sure that we’re not overcommitting. Basically, we’re building a lot of equipment pretty fast to try to keep up,” he said.
In addition to Big Cricket Farms, there is one other farm in Canada producing food-grade crickets that helps the industry meet demand.
Several startups have cropped up in the wake of the U.N. report. Exo is a company run by two graduates of Brown University that makes cricket-based protein bars. Bitty Foods sells a gluten-free baking mix that contains ground crickets. And Six Foods is a Boston-based business making cricket-based chips they call chirps.
“A lot of the little startups that you see are getting [their crickets] from us or from the Canadian guys,” Bachhuber said. “Everybody’s kind of moving towards getting them from the U.S. because the food standards are stricter, and people seem pretty excited about the idea of not having to go overseas to get them.”
Prior to opening Big Cricket Farms, Bachhuber operated a comic book store with some friends in Wisconsin. When that fell apart during the recession, he moved into finance.
“It was a lot of developing the skills to make sure that the next business that I launched would be able to take off,” he said. “I had a lot of opportunities in leadership and business development while doing finance.”
Bachhuber came to Youngstown because he and some friends wanted to site projects in the Rust Belt.
“I actually found Youngstown on Wikipedia’s list of fastest-shrinking cities,” he said.
Bachhuber toured five different Rust Belt cities with a friend last August and found Youngstown more amenable than the rest.
“Everybody seemed really cool here. Youngstown seems very interested in revitalization,” he said.
Big Cricket Farms is a portfolio company with the Youngstown Business Incubator, which has helped them get settled.
“The big thing is that they really help us sidestep a lot of the issues that face startups that aren’t going through business incubation,” Bachhuber said. “A lot of it’s about resources. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done getting the dots connected for us. They’ve helped us with getting legal stuff done, and just getting us ready for each of these steps.”
Bachhuber has also been using 3-D printing to prototype and make parts for the farm.
“We’re in Youngstown so you kind of have to,” he said.
Bachhuber was recently a featured speaker at an Eating Innovation conference in Montreal focused on establishing the edible insect industry. He also lectured at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in September. He will be speaking at TEDx Youngstown on Jan. 25, 2014.