While the US edible insect market has not – yet – set the world on fire, demand for cricket protein continues to grow steadily, claimed James Rolin, COO at Cowboy Cricket Farms, which is building a 10,000sq ft facility combining a cricket farm (7,000 sq ft) and education center (3,000sq ft) set to open in Bozeman early next year.
“Initially we’ll be able to monitor temperature, humidity and airflow and automatically adjust it, and then the next step is to do watering and feeding automatically.”
The company currently processes crickets from a network of farmer partners, but has been struggling to keep up with demand, said Rolin, who processes the insects (which are supplied frozen) at a separate location a few miles away (where they are dehydrated and sold whole (with flavors added) or milled into a powder, which can be sold as is, or incorporated into cookies and other products.
“We’ve run out of product almost every month for the last six months.”
Demand outstrips supply
Founded in late 2016, Cowboy Cricket Farms is a profitable company, and is funding its expansion through sales, but has also received several grants, said Rolin.
“At this point, the demand seems to be increasing but there’s not many more suppliers, and what we’ve seen is that people come in, something goes wrong and they close up shop, so total production is only increasing slightly but it’s falling behind demand, so prices have remained high. But prices will come down.
“This new facility will allow us to increase our production and meet demand for our own products, but also start finally addressing some of the wholesale demand [from other CPG brands looking for a domestic supply of cricket powder]. We’ve received a lot of letters of intent from other companies out there what want to use protein made in the US instead of importing from Thailand.”
Cowboy Cricket Farms is not operating on the scale of Entomo Farms in Canada (which has 60,000 sq ft of farming space), but if you combine the farming space operated by its farming partners and its new facility, it will be processing crickets from “a little bit north of 20,000sq ft [of cricket farms],” he said.
Who eats insect products?
Right now, Cowboy Cricket Farms sells branded retail products (protein powder, cookies, and whole crickets) via its own website, Amazon, and bricks & mortar locations from museums to gourmet food stores, with athletes, hikers and outdoor pursuits enthusiasts serving as core consumers, he said.
“We’ve also had interest from schools, hospitals and senior centers, as well as parents who want to get more nutrition into their kids’ diets.”
We want to normalize the eating of insects in western culture
The 3,000 sq ft educational center will consist of a bug products store and interactive and static exhibits promoting “entomophagy as a way to normalize the eating of insects in western culture,” said Rolin. “We want them to get past the disgust as we educate people we create customers.”
The main educational center will “work in conjunction with the new automated farm to allow the public, for the first time ever, to see and experience a truly state of the art commercial insect facility,” he added.
Along with viewing the farm and life stages of the crickets, visitors will be able to view informational looped videos along the way and interact with the farm staff on guided tours, explained Rolin.
Despite the ubiquity of bug consumption in some parts of the world, the tools and techniques to raise and process insects as human food on an industrial scale are still evolving, and there are still no globally agreed standards about how to do it in the most efficient manner, says Aspire Food Group, which is on a mission to automate and professionalize insect farming.
Edible insect pioneer Chapul – which introduced many Americans to the concept of eating bugs by milling them into powder and adding them to protein bars – has pulled out of the bar category for the time being after its co-packer went out of business, and is now focusing efforts on a new overseas venture raising black soldier flies for animal feed. However, the Chapul cricket protein powder business is still growing nicely online, says founder Pat Crowley.