By Sean Ellis
Idaho Farm Bureau Federation
BUHL – In a greenhouse outside of Buhl, slices of Idaho’s most famous crop – potatoes – are being used to help produce what could be the state’s most unusual crop: crickets.
When they are grown, the insects are ground into powder before being added to energy bars, pastas, brownies, cakes, breads, cookies, spices and an assortment of other human food products.
EcoBalance Farms owner Starla Barnes began growing crickets for human consumption in October and started with 20,000 of the insects. One month later, her operation had 1 million crickets and two months later it had three million.
The farm had about 20 million crickets as of mid-April, according to Dean Moreno, Barnes’ business partner.
Barnes, who grew up on a dairy and has also worked in the aquaculture industry, got the idea of raising crickets for the human food market while working on her Ph.D. in animal nutrition.
“One of the high-performing animal proteins was crickets,” she said. “Then I noticed that humans can benefit from the crickets as well. So, I started looking into what it would take to enter the cricket market for human consumption.”
It took her about two years to develop a plan and that started with approaching Moreno, whose background is in business, with the idea.
His first reaction? “I was like, ‘What? Ew.’”
But then he decided to give Barnes’ idea a serious vetting.
“I was just flabbergasted as far as what the market was for it,” Moreno said. “I went back to her and said, ‘Believe it or not, this actually is a viable business.’”
According to a Forbes article, the worldwide market for crickets was about $33 million in 2015 and the U.S. market alone is expected to exceed $50 million by 2023. According to that article, cricket protein powders and other products with crickets in them are already being sold in grocery stores in the United States.
Barnes said the global market for crickets is forecast to reach $7 billion by 2025.
The human food products with crickets being sold in the U.S. are clearly labeled and people that purchase them aren’t accidentally consuming crickets, Moreno said. “They’re buying them on purpose.”
Most of the cricket products being sold now are being consumed in other nations but Barnes said it’s not difficult to get Americans over the “ick” factor once they try a product with crickets.
“It’s just a matter of introducing people to them, letting them try it and seeing that there is no real ick factor in it,” she said. “You don’t realize that it’s even in there. It tastes like an almond or sunflower or pumpkin seed when they’re cooked. It doesn’t have a bad taste to it.”
Laura Johnson, who manages the Idaho State Department of Agriculture’s market development division, recently ate a chocolate chip cookie made with cricket powder during a consumer food event in Twin Falls.
“It tasted like a normal chocolate chip cookie,” she said. “You couldn’t tell it was made with crickets at all.”
The cookies were given away at an Idaho Preferred booth set up at the event.
“They went like hotcakes,” Johnson said. “They were amazingly popular.”
Barnes and Moreno aren’t the only people in the U.S. who are trying their hand at raising crickets for human food but they have one of the largest operations. Barnes said EcoBalance Farms is probably the second largest cricket farm in the nation.
The greenhouses where the crickets are raised are filled with large bean totes teeming with hordes of crickets, who appear to have no desire to try to escape their “cricket condos,” which are stocked with a powdered high-protein food source for the insects.
Most of the cricket farms in the U.S. are comparatively small.
Moreno said one of the reasons there aren’t a lot of big cricket farms is that the insects are difficult to grow, so he and Barnes decided to do their due diligence and focus on trying to master the production side of the equation to ensure they were able to raise a large number of crickets as efficiently as possible.
Using the geothermal water available in the area is a big plus and allows the farm to avoid a heating bill and grow the crickets year-round, a luxury most other cricket farms don’t have.
“We did a lot of homework,” Moreno said. “It took us a lot of time to actually get the final idea and it’s still evolving.”
The cricket poop, called frass, is sold as fertilizer.
“It’s like raising any other type of animal, basically,” Barnes said. “You’re feeding them every day, you’re watering them, we handle the hatching of the babies every day.”
The Buhl farm currently has the capacity to produce six tons of cricket powder per week and it sells for about $40 a pound.
The operation is using only 12,000 of the 100,000 square feet of greenhouse space available on the property and Moreno and Barnes plan to soon significantly ratchet up their operation.
“We’re feeling the growing pains in this (12,000-square-foot) space in just (several) months,” Moreno said.