A different crunch: Benton County couple launches state’s first cricket farm
KEYSTONE — Roughly 600 people live in the Benton County community of Keystone.
But upward of 80,000 residents — albeit the small, chirping kind — are making their home on the farm of Becky and Jason Herman.
Earlier this year, the couple opened Iowa’s first farm designed to raise insects for food.
At Iowa Cricket Farmer, the “livestock” reside in blue barrels in a carefully controlled environment and eventually are to be sold to Utah-based Chapul, a company that uses cricket flour to make granola bars and protein powder. You may have seen the company on the reality television show “Shark Tank.” Well known “shark” and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban signed on as an investor.
Becky Herman, a social studies teacher at Marion High School, said she got the idea to open the cricket farm last year after watching a CNN piece on Big Cricket Farms in Ohio that touched on the insect’s growing popularity. Crickets have long been eaten as a snack in parts of Asia, including Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Herman shared the segment with her students as part of a current events discussion. “The first time the kids and I see it, we’re just disgusted,” she said. “The second time I watch it in my next class, the kids are disgusted and I’m starting to think about it a little bit: ‘Could I eat a cricket?’ The third time I watched it, I’m like, ‘OK, I need to do some research.’ ”
For now, the Hermans aren’t quitting their day jobs. Jason works at Walmart and another partner, Jared Van Hamme, is a Linn County conservationist.
But they have big plans.
The first step is increasing the number of crickets the farm produces. Through breeding, Becky Herman says the farm should be able to turn out about 900,000 crickets every six weeks. Eventually, the group hopes to renovate its 3,800-square-foot facility on Main Street in Keystone, and churn out 1.8 million crickets — about 1,800 pounds — every six weeks.
Herman says she hopes to get between $10 and $12 per pound for her crickets.
“We’re hoping by the end of summer to start selling them,” she said.
The farm operators also are beginning to experiment with other potential uses for the insects, which contain about 126 calories per 100 grams, as compared to 567 calories for 100 grams of peanuts.
“Once they’re roasted, they’re like a nut,” said Herman. “Unsalted, roasted cricket is a little bit of a nutty flavor. If you think of a peanut, the little brown sheath sometimes covering that, it’s more of that flavor.
“If you think of eating an insect, you probably think of it goo-ing out, and they would if you ate them (uncooked).”
Herman said she and her husband also are feeding their crickets herbs — like dill and basil — they’re growing in a garden behind the cricket farm because she read crickets can take on the flavor of what they eat. The Hermans are hoping the crickets may turn into pizza toppings someday.
“We are in a stage of adventurous eating,” Becky Herman said.
Kevin Bachhuber, founder of Big Cricket Farms — one of the first cricket farms in the U.S. to be certified as a food-grade facility to grow crickets for human consumption — said he discovered the insects while vacationing in Thailand.
“We were very much in the use-every-part-of-the-food-chain places. Instead of bar nuts, it was fried crickets and bamboo worms,” Bachhuber said of a bar he visited. “It’s like … ‘that’s amazing.’ It’s a developed taste, and it would be hard to explain. If you had to describe shrimp to someone who only had chicken, beef or pork, you’d struggle.”
The trend of eating insects took root in the United States after a 2013 United Nations Report encouraged the consumption of insects as an affordable, protein-dense, environmentally sustainable source of protein that should be taken advantage of as a food source as the world will need to almost double food production by 2050.
“Here is a whole new protein that could possibly, eventually help feed billions of people in the next 20-30 years,” said Becky Herman in discussing one of the reasons why she was attracted to cricket farming.
The other big reason, she said, is the environmental impact of cricket farming.
“Honestly, it’s so environmentally conscious,” she said. “How can you feel good about raising all of the traditional livestock with the water consumption that goes with it?”
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 1 pound of crickets takes about 1 gallon of fresh water to produce, as opposed to 10 gallons to produce 1 pound of chicken.
“The water we’re using just seems irresponsible,” she said. “I feel we need to diversify the protein a bit.”
DOWN ON THE FARM
Iowa Cricket Farmer started its operation in March with 3,000 crickets. Since that time, another 3,000 crickets have been purchased and the rest have been bred. Females can lay 5-10 eggs per day,” Becky Herman said.
She said raising crickets is a bit tricky because they require a highly regulated climate with humidity above 50 percent and temperatures between 84 and 93 degrees.
“They need organic soil and we’ve created a tent wrapped in plastic like a greenhouse,” she added.
Once the farm is ready to begin shipping crickets out west, Becky Herman said they’ll be placed in a refrigerator, then frozen. Once in the hands of Chapul, they’ll be roasted and ground up.
Chapul sells its cricket flour granola bars in four flavors: Aztec Bar (dark chocolate, coffee, cayenne), Chaco Bar (peanut butter and chocolate), Thai Bar (coconut, ginger, lime), and Matcha (matcha green tea, goji berries, and nori).
They cost $36 for a dozen at the company’s website, www.chapul.com
The above article appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette on July 25, 2016.