A Vermont Farm Has Big Goals and Small Livestock: Crickets | Food + Drink Features | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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A Vermont Farm Has Big Goals and Small Livestock: Crickets


Published November 11, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Steve Swanson

The first clue that Williston's Tomorrow's Harvest is an unconventional protein farm is that only one animal appears to reside there — the family dog, Luna, who hangs out under a tree in the front yard. Far more numerous, but hidden from the casual observer, are the critters that inspired the farm's name. Inside an insulated shack in the garage, thousands of them live comfortably in large plastic bins. They have six legs, and the males have a tendency to chirp when courting.

Tomorrow's Harvest is a small farm, but its founders, Jennifer and Steve Swanson, have big ambition. They want to be the first farm in Vermont — and one of the first half dozen or so in North America — to produce crickets for human consumption. For the Swansons, insect farming is the solution to global ills such as factory farming, malnutrition, poverty and environmental crisis.

"We constantly read about the nonsense that's in our food, the antibiotics, the drugs," said Steve, "the moral issues of raising livestock — how they're treated and mishandled. That's one of the reasons I wanted to be a farmer rather than going after a product ... I want to be there from the beginning to make sure that the insects that I'm raising are healthy, fed the right stuff and that it's an honest product."

The Swansons aren't alone in their opinion that mass-scale entomophagy has the potential to blunt, if not eliminate, some of the world's most vexing afflictions. With top-flight restaurants such as Copenhagen's Noma leading the charge, Steve suggested, consumers are realizing the potential of insects as a food source. "The demand is huge," he said.

For now, though, the owners and sole employees of this year-old business are still perfecting their methods of raising, harvesting and processing their crickets; they're not yet even ready to submit their products to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval.

Jennifer, a medical-products sales representative, travels often for her job, so Steve has become chief cricket wrangler. He estimates that they've invested between $10,000 and $15,000 in this endeavor, including the costs of stock, feed (milled grain), bins, the insulated shed and the energy expended to create the insects' preferred habitat. Crickets don't care much about light, but they do prefer warm temperatures.

The bugs also like the many nooks and crevices provided by the stacked paperboard egg cartons that Swanson places in the bins. Each bin contains several hundred crickets, but these are bugs that seem to enjoy the company of their own kind ... up to a point. "You can't overcrowd them," Swanson said. "Crickets self-regulate. If they're overcrowded and stressed, they take bites out of each other."

A recent, unsuccessful Indiegogo fundraising campaign has not dampened the Swansons' hopes. Their initial plan is to have the farming operation take over either their basement or the entire garage; down the road, they envision a 5,000-square-foot facility with commercial-grade equipment.

Harvesting crickets requires just two common devices: a fridge and a freezer. Placed in the former, the insects soon experience a dormant condition called diapause; transferred to the latter, they expire. Swanson said he's committed to treating his animals humanely; some studies suggest that the insects cannot feel pain at all.

The harvested crickets can be either roasted or dehydrated. With seasonings, they become a crunchy snack or a recipe-ready ingredient; finely ground, they produce a flour.

Swanson prefers to call that product "cricket powder," the better to encourage a parallel with processed-protein powders used as nutritional supplements. Containing up to 70 percent protein, he said, cricket powder can replace a portion of conventional flour in baking, or be added to sauces and soups as a thickening agent and protein booster. Not all cricket powders are the same, Swanson noted — like coffee, they derive a complexity of flavor from the particular species, roasting process and grind.

Ultimately, Swanson said, he'd like Tomorrow's Harvest to be a producer of cricket powder, a far more versatile ingredient than whole roasted bugs. If, as he put it, crickets are the "gateway bug," then cricket powder is the gateway to cricket consumption. One risk: Some people with shellfish allergies can react adversely to insects. The culprit appears to be a protein shared by all arthropods.

While some may balk at the notion of adding bugs to food, Swanson and other entomophagy advocates point out that big ag has already done it for you. No process can rid comestibles of insects, so, 20 years ago, the FDA threw up its bureaucratic hands and established levels of insect-part acceptability — for broccoli, for instance, the limit is "60 aphids, thrips or mites per 100 grams."

Put another way: There's no such thing as a vegetarian.

Swanson acknowledged that the "you're already eating them" argument may not convince the leery. But a 2013 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (PDF) offers stronger persuasion. It reveals that, compared with cows, pigs and chickens, insects consume far less water, emit fewer greenhouse gases and convert feed to meat more efficiently. Bugs can also feed on biowaste for a closed-loop, one-two ecological punch. As a bonus, said Swanson, their excrement, known as frass, makes excellent fertilizer.

Nutritionally, bugs are a good source of protein, fatty acids, fiber, phosphorus and magnesium, and they are unlikely to carry devastating diseases such as bird flu and mad cow disease. The UN report further touts insect farming as offering a sustainable, low-cost living for impoverished people worldwide.

Crickets have another thing going for them: The little buggers reproduce fast. In Swanson's experience, crickets take about eight to 12 weeks to go from egg to harvestable protein source. For beef cattle, that figure is closer to 18 months.

All these points feature in Swanson's presentation on the benefits of bug consumption, which also plays up the role of agricultural emissions in climate change. "If we really go after the livestock industry," he said, "it can make a bigger difference more quickly than, say, if everyone went solar."

So why isn't the edible-insect industry thriving? Rachael Young is a former Montpelier resident who owns a company called Eat Yummy Bugs and works as an agricultural consultant to the edible-insect industry in Austin, Texas. The problem, she said in a phone conversation with Seven Days, is that the industry hasn't kept pace with the hype attending it.

That's not to say the Swansons are alone in their endeavor; Steve cited such predecessors as Big Cricket Farms in Youngstown, Ohio, the largest producer of food-grade insects in the country; and Bitty Foods, the headline-grabbing San Francisco-based company that makes cricket-laced flour and cookies.

But these are still comparatively small enterprises. "For the large cricket farms in the United States, the edible-insect industry doesn't really move the needle," Young said. Such companies, she noted, still make most of their money selling crickets to pet stores. "They're not really incentivized to ... change their quality or distribution."

Young believes that smaller edible-insect startups such as the Swansons' could give the industry the jolt it needs. "I still really believe in this industry," she said. "If there's anywhere that [we'll find] the creativity needed to make this viable, I think it could come out of Vermont. There's a really cool counterculture there ... and it's an agricultural problem" — implying that local farming know-how could be a boon.

The most formidable obstacle to wide-scale entomophagy is not one that can easily be bounded over or scurried beneath: People of many different cultures see bugs as critters to squish, not eat.

If the Swansons' own young family is any indication, though, this bias is a learned one. Steve reported that their 2-year-old son is currently going through a fussy phase. He doesn't like the texture of "conventional" meats but is happy to gobble down roasted crickets by the handful. Adding cricket powder to kids' preferred foods works as a sneaky means of upping their protein content, the father of two noted.

Cricket mac and cheese, anyone?

Creepy-Crawly Taste Test

Steve Swanson and his son - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Steve Swanson and his son

Evidence for the benefits of eating insects abounds. But how do they taste? Seven Days is at your service with a highly unscientific taste test.

Last Wednesday, Steve Swanson stopped by our offices with a loaf of hearty, nut-brown cricket-powder bread and a brimming dish of "chocolate-chirp cookies." To prepare them, the Swansons substituted cricket powder for about 20 percent of the flour in the former and 25 percent in the latter. (Since their own crickets still lack FDA approval, they sourced the powder from a company called All Things Bugs.)

Nine culinarily adventurous Seven Days staffers convened to sample these buggy baked goods.The initial bites yielded a common response: The bread tasted like bread, and the cookies tasted like cookies. A few more nibbles yielded more nuanced opinions. More than one taster said that the bread — sampled both toasted and untoasted, buttered and unbuttered — was reminiscent of sourdough. One person noted a "powderiness or sandiness" that stopped short of unpleasant grittiness, concluding that the bread was "not terrible, but I wouldn't want to make a sandwich with it."

The cookies were generally judged superior to the bread, with one taster comparing their flavor favorably with those of high-protein foods such as energy bars. Another tester observed that the cookies had a pleasing texture and a good if unexceptional flavor — a positive sign, she thought, for the mass-market potential of insect ingredients.

The most persistent criticism of the foods pertained to their aftertaste, which some described as "fishy" and which one taster called "tinny." That tang was the only telltale sign that we were consuming foods made with six-legged ingredients.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Bug Banquet"