KEYSTONE, Iowa — Like many farmers, Becky Herman bounces from enclosure to enclosure, feeding and watering her livestock.
There are thousands of them, but Herman knows some well enough to assign them human traits. Those two over there are bullies, she says.
And though she’s new at this gig, Herman has already learned not to name her stock, lest she grow too attached.
While farmers are no rarity in this eastern Iowa town of 600, Herman’s operation stands alone. Her farm, the Iowa Cricket Farmer, is the state’s first insect farm growing critters for the purposes of human consumption.
It’s believed to be among a handful of cricket farms across the country capitalizing on a trend of health-conscious foodies munching on insects.
The farm’s 50,000 to 60,000 crickets have been raised so far to be breeders. Herman expects to deliver the first batch bound for human stomachs this summer.
They’ll be sent to Salt Lake City and ground into cricket flour for Chapul, the maker of cricket protein bars and protein powder made famous on the television show “Shark Tank.”
While there is inherent novelty to the operation, the Iowa Cricket Farmer looks more like a science lab than a playground.
The crickets’ diets (all organic) are carefully controlled. The water they’re given has been purified through reverse osmosis. And the temperature and humidity are closely managed.
Eventually, Herman plans to turn nearly 2 million crickets every six weeks.
“We like to refer to them as miniature livestock,” she said.
Herman, a Marion High School social studies teacher, isn’t some tree-hugging granola type. It took her awhile to get used to the idea of eating bugs.
She became intrigued after watching a segment on crickets on the CNN Student News show she watches regularly with the kids in her class.
Insect farming is considered more sustainable than traditional livestock. Because they’re coldblooded, crickets are efficient at converting food into protein.
They require 12 times less feed than cattle, four times less feed than sheep, and half as much feed as pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein, according to a 2013 United Nations report examining insects’ potential as human food.
“Insects are reported to emit fewer greenhouse gases and less ammonia than cattle or pigs, and they require significantly less land and water than cattle rearing,” the study states.
In fact, crickets require 8 percent of the water it takes for cows to produce a similar amount of protein, according to Chapul. And the critters emit 1 percent of the greenhouse gases of cows.
“That’s really why we got into it,” Herman said. “It’s so much more environmentally friendly than traditional forms of livestock.”
Aside from their protein content, crickets deliver 15 percent more iron than spinach and as much vitamin B-12 as salmon.
“I’m learning all sorts of stuff about nutrition. I’m hoping this will be one of those things like, ‘Look at her before she started and look at her after, she’s so skinny and fit now,’” Herman joked. “Like one of those Nutrisystem commercials or something.”
Admittedly, crickets are not a mainstream food.
But they are being used by intrepid chefs and in a slew of pricey consumer products.
Chapul, for example, sells a pack of four protein bars for $13. Three bags of Chirps cricket chips run about $15. And a 3-ounce jar of Sal de Cricket, a cricket-based seasoning, costs $12.
While demand continues increasing for edible crickets, Herman said the supply chain is limited.
“Right now, it’s gourmet, and no one’s raising crickets,” she said. “Right now, it’s cricket gold. Eventually, it will be more like cricket copper.”
While about 200 to 300 farms raise crickets for bait, animal feed and pet food, only 10 or 15 across the country raise crickets destined for humans, said Kevin Bachhuber, who started Big Cricket Farms in Youngstown, Ohio, in 2014.
His farm oftentimes was unable to keep up, sometimes receiving orders 20 to 30 times over the farm’s capacity.
“The thing that shocked me since we started was how hot and and fierce the demand has been,” Bachhuber said. “It’s a really fast-growing market.”
Local water problems caused Big Cricket Farms to cease production. But with such high demand, Buchhuber is moving the operation to St. Louis and shifting its focus from raising to distributing crickets, connecting farmers with buyers.
Even so, it’s not like crickets are moving anywhere close to the pace of mainstream foods.
“As a percentage of tonnage of corn shipped each year, it rounds down to zero,” he said.
Nothing about Keystone could have foretold its newfound status as the cricket capital of Iowa.
Other than crickets outnumbering people here by at least 80 to 1, Keystone resembles many small Iowa towns.
Keystone’s only gas station doubles as a restaurant. The John Deere dealer is one of the largest businesses in town. And traffic is so light, people stand in the middle of Main Street to chat.
The Iowa Cricket Farmer’s brightly painted blue-and-green facade stands out on Main, which is also home to a bank, a small post office, a hardware store and a quaint library.
“I thought it was hilarious at first,” said Joan Boudreau, an assistant librarian at the Schroeder Public Library, which sits directly across the street from the farm.
The farm took over an abandoned restaurant building.
“I think people are just happy to see the building used and not being torn down,” she said. “Because we’ve had enough of that in this community.”
Cricket farming is surprisingly simple.
While Herman and her business partners — her husband, Jason, and friend Jared Van Hamme — researched their methods meticulously, she said the process is simple enough to do in a garage.
Part of the farm is under construction. But the breeding room houses dozens of blue plastic barrel bottoms sitting atop specially constructed racks.
The chirping is surprisingly muted. Only the mating males rub their wings, and the crickets hide when the lights are on.
An organic veggie garden out back grows cricket food. In turn, cricket dung has proved a surprisingly efficient vegetable fertilizer.
Crickets will eventually be harvested with a trip to the walk-in refrigerator to induce lethargy. Then, its off to the deep freezer so they can be shipped for processing.
Herman’s farm will ship crickets frozen, and buyers will then cook and grind the insects on their own.
Eventually, she hopes to sell to local processors and Iowa restaurants.
In bulk, crickets sell for $3 to $5 per pound. Some sellers move smaller quantities online for as much as $30 per pound, though Herman expects to fetch closer to $10 per pound.
At its peak, her farm could turn 1.8 million crickets every six weeks. That’s about 1,800 pounds.
She envisions that the crickets will find their way into local tacos or on top of pizzas and salads
Iowa Cricket Farms has applied for a food processing license from the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals. That would make it the state’s first insect farm licensed for human consumption.
Currently, the state has no specific regulations on raising insects, though the farm will secure a food processing license, showing that it meets cleanliness and operational standards.
Christa Hartsook, small farms program coordinator with Iowa State Extension and Outreach, said people shouldn’t rush to open their own cricket farms. She advised first studying the supply chain and cricket market firsthand.
But given the relatively low investment, small space requirements and health benefits, insect farms could provide unique opportunities. Herman and her partners started the farm with their personal savings.
They purchased the building for $16,000 at auction. The partners invested about $9,000. And Herman won a $9,000 grant for marketing from Iowa Women Lead Change in a May contest among majority women-owned businesses.
That puts their investment at about $35,000. And Herman estimates annual expenses to average about $8,000.
“For some of our beginning farmers or some of our urban farmers, this is definitely a low-cost enterprise to get into and get started with,” Hartsook said. “And that’s something a lot of people look for. It’s just making sure you’ve got that end market in mind.”
She visited the Keystone farm this month and was impressed with its cleanliness and the operators’ proficiency.
“It was definitely the most unusual farm I’ve ever visited,” Hartsook said.
Herman says cooked crickets taste fairly bland, like unsalted nuts.
“If you season them, they’re good,” she said, “kind of like bar nuts.”
The bugs can take on the taste of the foods they eat, especially as they mature.
Eventually, the Iowa Cricket Farmer could offer apple- and cinnamon-flavored crickets. Herman plans to experiment with herbs like basil, providing a unique pizza topper for more adventurous chefs around Iowa.