Iowa woman starts cricket farm

Courtesy MGN Online
By  | 

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Iowa farm kids joining the family business have been adding livestock to boost income opportunities for decades.

Pigs. Cattle. Dairy cows. Sheep.

Shelby Smith has chosen a chirpier path: crickets.

In all fairness, it was her father, Dennis Smith, who suggested the 27-year-old find a niche when she returned to work the family's rural Story County corn and soybean farm after living in Ireland for nearly five years.

"You don't want to fight this corn and soybean market that I've been fighting for 30 years," Smith said, recalling her father's advice. "If you can find a niche, go after it."

U.S. farmers have struggled to post profits in recent years, with income today half of what it was in 2013.

Crickets are a way to diversify the family farm operation, Smith told The Des Moines Register .

"It's like mini-livestock," she said.

She believes the alternative protein will appeal to endurance athletes like herself.

"The health, fitness, Cross Fitty-types who are more conscious of their protein intake - that's my market," Smith said.

She calls her startup Gym-N-Eat-Crickets, and it produces the kind of food Smith wants.

"It scratches my itch. I want whole food (and) a nutritious source of protein that tastes good," said Smith, whose last race was the Baatan Marathon Memorial Race, a six-hour trek that took her through New Mexico carrying a 35-pound pack.

After harvesting the crickets, Smith dry-roasts them and either seasons them to eat whole or grinds them into a protein powder.

Smith uses the powder to make protein balls. She likes one with nuts, dates and spices for breakfast.

But she also makes chocolate sea salt, raspberry, apple pie and coconut chocolate chip bites.

And she's developed maple cinnamon, ranch and fiesta-flavors to season whole crickets.

"The people who are terrified of bugs - who are completely freaked out by bugs - I'm probably never going to get them to try them," Smith said.

Millennials seem more receptive to trying insects than older generations," she said.

"I'm not trying to replace steak," she said.

Smith is unsure how the crickets will be received at the Ames farmers' market, where she plans to sell them later this month.

"It will be interesting to see if people can get over the eyes and the legs," she said. "Some people can get past the eyes and legs; some people can't."

Smith must first build up her "herd" before offering the insects commercially.

She started with 10,000 crickets and has pushed the population to 100,000.

She wants to raise the number to 200,000 - about as many as can fit into the small office where she raises the insects.

Smith will have to push the population even higher if she wants to begin mass production. She may build a separate facility - or consider using shipping containers.

But that's probably a year away, she said.

"Baby steps. We walk before we run," Smith said, adding that she's developing a business plan to determine how much she would need to invest to reach commercial production.

Christa Hartsook, a small farms program coordinator with Iowa State Extension and Outreach, likes Smith's plan to go slow.

"When you start any business, it's always good to start small. Get your systems in place; know the market (and) the cost of production before ramping up," Hartsook said.

Local farmers' markets can be a good way to test new products - especially unusual ones.

"It's a great way to build awareness and enthusiasm," Harsook said.

Smith, a former Saint Joseph University (Philadelphia) basketball player, spent 4½ years in Ireland, playing basketball and working for two years with a group called Sports Changes Life, a mentoring, coaching and education program in at-risk areas.

At the same time, she was also getting her master's degree in finance.

She then joined the National Bank of Canada, trading equity derivatives.

Smith first heard about cricket protein powder listening to podcasts from business guru Tim Ferriss and comedian Joe Rogan.

And, she's familiar with Chapul, the first U.S. edible cricket business that snagged funding from "Shark Tank" investor and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

"There are people who are raising crickets and haven't been able to keep up with demand," she said.

Iowa has another cricket farm in Keystone, owned by a Marion High School social studies teacher.

"You can turn anything into a business," said Smith, who jumped in the tractor and ran the grain cart for her dad last fall after getting off her international flight.

For now, Smith is building her cricket population in the heat- and humidity-controlled room in her father's shop office, a utilitarian space that reverberates with male crickets, singing to attract the females.

"They're a skittish animal. You'll have to wait for them to come out to see you," Smith said.

Large rubber totes are filled with egg cartons that the 3,000 six-legged insects like to hide in.

She feeds them chicken feed, but also could look to other local grains and grasses.

"You could use food waste if you want. You could go to restaurants and get vegetable scraps. It's just a little more difficult to maintain with wet food," she said.

Smith has added cake pans that have some peat moss that female crickets use to lay their eggs.

"They average five to 10 eggs per female per day," Smith said. "If you start doing that math, it starts to add up quickly. You can expand the population quite rapidly."

She'll take the pans out after a couple days and move them into another tote, where she keeps them moist. They hatch within seven to 14 days. That produces thousands of crickets. The insects have a six- to eight-week life-cycle.

Smith is quickly adding racks to stack her totes. A table and refrigerator likely will get moved out of the office soon.

Her original stock, Acheta domesticus, came from a Louisiana cricket farm. They're used as fish bait, animal feed or pet food.

Smith freezes the common house crickets to harvest them.

The United Nation suggests edible insects could be one environmentally friendly solution to address the protein needs of a growing world population.

The UN projects that food production will need to almost double to feed an estimated 9.1 billion people by 2050.

"Crickets are 60 percent protein by dry weight. Beef is about 30 percent," Smith said, adding that crickets need little water, feed or space to raise.

And the waste from crickets, called frass, is good fertilizer that helps keep other insects away from plants.

The entrepreneur already has fielded emails and calls from endurance athletes interested in her products.

And when a couple crickets jump out of the tote, Smith said: "We'll charge more for those crickets. They're free-range."