Jack Armstrong's family farm, just outside of West Monroe in northern Louisiana, is one of the oldest of its kind in the nation. It’s an unconventional operation. In place of pastures, there are white warehouses. In place of traditional livestock, there are crickets.
In 1945 Jack’s grandfather, Tal Armstrong, a plumber by trade, was trying to find a way to breed crickets, in Glennville, Georgia. He loved fishing, and crickets proved to be his best bait—but he was done paying people to catch them. He began experimenting with raising the arthropods in his boiler room. A friend who owned a funeral home nearby offered Tal the boxes that caskets came in as makeshift homes for the crickets. They turned out to be just right; the crickets thrived. Within a year, word got around that Tal had the best fishing bait in town, and Tal realized his pastime could support much more than a roadside stand.
Armstrong’s Cricket Farm officially opened on January 1, 1947. In less than a decade, the family operation grew into two farms in two states, producing hundreds of millions of crickets a year. Today around 93 percent are sold to the pet food industry (PetSmart is the largest buyer); most of the rest are still sold for fish bait. But in the last two years, the farm has taken on unexpected clientele: entrepreneurs who hope to prepare and sell crickets for you and me to eat.
In light of the glaring environmental impact of raising traditional meats, crickets have piqued people's interest because they are so efficient.
Crickets are surprisingly nutritious. Per hundred grams, they contain nearly the same amount of protein as ground beef and the same amount of iron as spinach, and more vitamin B12 than salmon. In light of the glaring resource-intensiveness and environmental impact of raising traditional meats, crickets have piqued people’s interest because they are so efficient: Pound for pound, the bugs need far less water and feed than chickens and cows. The market now includes competing cricket-protein bars, cricket-based snack chips (“Chirps”), and cricket flour for baking; chefs are offering items such as cricket tacos on menus. Many of these new companies have reached out to Armstrong for supply.
Last year, Armstrong and I sat in his office talking crickets, the acidic smell of manure and feed permeating the air. In his mid-60s and slightly stooped, Armstrong can talk about the bugs for hours, punctuating stories with a wheezy laugh that crinkles his hazel eyes. His desk was a display of cricketalia: a jar of chocolate-covered crickets sat next to a foot-long bronze cricket paperweight; behind that was a box of cricket-protein bars (every once in a while he eats one). “The way we raise them now is a jillion times different than in granddaddy’s day,” Armstrong said, leaning back in his chair. He then backtracked a little, adding that the basics are more or less the same. “You got your sand, like he had; you put sand in the boxes and adults lay eggs in them and they hatch out and you go from there,” he said. “But now in our complex we’ve got buildings just to hatch eggs in, one to catch them in, and we put them in buildings based on age.”
The air inside one of the smaller farm buildings, across the street from Armstrong’s office, is kept at a warm 90 degrees for optimal cricket growing. Aside from a few spider webs clinging to the windows, the building is spotless. (Mike Rowe, of the Discovery Channel show Dirty Jobs, filmed a show at a cricket farm a few towns over, so I expected filth.) Aisles of cricket bunk beds filled with boxes about the size of funeral caskets are lined up in rows.
A strip of tape along the inside edge of each box keeps the small herd from crawling—or jumping—out. At least for the most part; there are occasional escapees. As we walked through the building, I crunched a few by accident. Armstrong laughed off my apologies. He loses plenty that way.
After passing several rows of white plastic containers, Armstrong bent down to peer into one. Armed with a clipboard, flashlight, and small blue ruler, he shined his flashlight inside. A swarm of crickets scurried away. Grabbing one, Armstrong pulled out his ruler to see how fast it was growing.
Armstrong’s cricket farm is productive enough to employ about 80 people (some work is seasonal) seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. “We’re not driving Lamborghinis,” Armstrong said, with a long laugh, “but we drive the kind of vehicles we want to drive.” Crickets are sold at anywhere from a few days old (pinhead stage) to adult, around six or seven weeks, so Armstrong’s costs vary depending on how long the bugs stay on the farm. Armstrong’s reptilian customers tend to favor crickets around four weeks old, and alive (and therefore hearty enough to survive transit). Buyers looking for human-grade crickets want adults, which means more time on the farm.
Armstrong's reptilian customers tend to favor crickets around four weeks old, and alive. Buyers looking for human-grade crickets want adults, which means more time on the farm.
A number of Armstrong’s new customers asked him to raise organic crickets, so he gave it a go. But special feed that was free of the usual ground fish and meat bone additives was two and a half times more expensive than his regular supply. And feed is already, aside from shelter, his biggest expense. Cricket food—a corn-soy-wheat mixture similar to what chickens and cows eat—is more expensive than typical feed because it has to be cleaner. The allowable levels of arsenic, lead, and pesticides in traditional livestock feed would kill crickets. And without the additional protein from ground fish and bones, the organically raised crickets grew about 20 percent slower than the non-organic. So far, Armstrong said, there aren’t enough regular orders to sustain the added costs.
But he remains hopeful about this new market. For people, he pointed out, the bugs could be shipped frozen. “If we could sell 100 percent of what we grew for human consumption we could make some changes over here,” he said. “But we don’t know if that market is going to be here, or if it’s just a fad.”
And there is the fact that most Westerners haven’t overcome their disgust of crickets—or any bug—as food. Paul Rozin, a psychologist who has spent the last 25 years studying the emotion of disgust and why cultures eat certain foods, says that our aversion to insects is based on circular reasoning: We don’t eat bugs because it’s not part of our culture to eat bugs. It’s possible to break the cycle, he says, but will take time, creativity, and education to shift people’s views.
Even Armstrong isn’t entirely sold on the idea of cricket consumption. Sure, he’s had them dipped in chocolate and ground into a bar, and he even ate a live one on a dare. But when I asked him if he cooks them at home, he laughed long and hard before simply saying no.
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