Building a Better Cricket Farm Kirsten Weir | Forward Thinkers

Tiny Farms CEO Andrew Brentano seeds a new environmentally friendly protein venture with high tech.


Crickets

Mild. Nutty. Slightly savory.

That’s how former web design entrepreneur Andrew Brentano describes the flavor of his signature food product: crickets. Brentano is cofounder and chief executive officer of Tiny Farms, an agricultural technology company based near Oakland, Calif., that leverages sensors, data captures, and automation to produce roasted cricket powder for the wholesale market.

Insects are a commonplace snack in countries around the world, but bugs haven’t quite gained mainstream appeal in the U.S. market—yet. That’s changing, though, as edible insect startups are pushing into retailers (and hawking their cricket-based products on ABC-TV’s “Shark Tank”). Brooklyn-based Exo makes cricket energy bars, while Salt Lake City–based Chapul sells energy bars and protein powders. In San Francisco, Bitty offers cookies and cricket flour, and Cambridge, Mass.–based Six Foods sells “chirps” chips and cookie mixes made from cricket flour. Other companies are experimenting with using cricket powder in products ranging from ice cream to Bolognese sauce, Brentano says.

A New Environment for Insect Ingredients
Andrew BrentanoCricket proponents have a lot of advantages to tap: The little critters are low in fat and contain more protein than beef, more iron that spinach, and more vitamin B12 than salmon. They’re efficient to grow, requiring a fraction of the land and water needed to farm cattle or pigs, and they’re believed to emit fewer greenhouse gases than other livestock, according to a comprehensive 2013 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Cricket powder is also efficient from a product life-cycle point of view, Brentano says. Whole crickets are roasted and milled into powder, so there’s no slaughterhouse, no meatpacking assembly line, and none of the added water and energy costs associated with those types of processing.
“[The crickets] are frozen right after harvesting, which first renders them unconscious and then kills them,” says Brentano. “We started out using convection heat to dry the crickets, but we’ve since engaged in a CRADA [cooperative research and development agreement] with the USDA ARS [Agricultural Research Service] and are exploring a number of alternative processing methods. Broadly speaking, all of the processing methods we’re experimenting with were previously developed for other purposes, and we are adapting them to work well for crickets.”

Because crickets are omnivorous, Brentano adds, they could be raised using food industry waste products such as spent brewers’ grains.

“There are all of these surplus sources of nutrition going to compost or landfills that we could instead be converting into high quality protein,” he says.

What’s more, cricket droppings could be a valuable fertilizer. Unlike manure from cows and pigs, cricket waste (frass) is dry and stable, making it easy to handle and ship. “You can start to think of cricket farming as a regenerative agriculture process,” says Brentano.

Shrinking Labor Costs
Tiny Farms launched in 2012 in Oakland, Calif., initially operating as a consulting tech company that helped both newcomers and existing growers design and build cricket farming operations. In early 2016, the company moved into a 2,000-square-foot facility in nearby San Leandro, Calif., and has since focused its energies on creating a better cricket farm.

Other researchers have already done basic work exploring crickets’ dietary and rearing requirements, Brentano says, but a number of dots need to be connected to make crickets competitive with a commonplace protein like chicken.

“Crickets for fishing bait can sell for 10 cents each,” Brentano says. “There are 1,200 crickets in a pound, so that doesn’t work for us.”

Instead, he and his colleagues set about trying to streamline the cricket farming process. Labor costs were high, so they designed automated food and water systems. They also added monitoring systems to collect data from cricket enclosures and track environmental conditions to optimize the habitat. “We’ve been able to significantly cut the amount of hands-on interaction necessary for caring for the crickets, bringing labor costs way down,” Brentano says.

Since they began, they’ve lowered their wholesale price of cricket powder from $40 per pound to $20, “and we’re inching toward $15 per pound,” he says. “To make this a viable ingredient we have to compete on price with traditional meat, and we’re just about there.”

Building Momentum
Over the next 18 months, Brentano plans to scale up Tiny Farms’ production, with a goal of producing 2 tons of milled cricket powder per week.

Demand for crickets continues to exceed the supply, he adds: “Everything we produce in the next year is spoken for.” But the current marketplace with only a handful of commercial-scale cricket farms makes it more difficult for the product to gain ground, Brentano says. Some big food manufacturers and pet food companies have expressed interest, but there isn’t yet enough product for them to commit to putting insects on their ingredient labels.

Insect farming is easily scalable, however. Instead of the thousands of acres required for farming cattle, a large-scale cricket operation could get by with as little as 10,000 square feet of warehouse space, Brentano says—and it could be built anywhere at all.

As costs come down and production scales up, he’s optimistic that large, established food brands will embrace crickets. “If we want impact in the food system, we need to take this into the mainstream,” he says. “We’re building that momentum.”


Kirsten Weir is a freelance science writer based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in New Scientist, Discover, Scientific American Mind, Monitor on Psychology, Nautilus and many other publications.


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