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Vermont Mealworm Farm Fuels Plants, Pets and People

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Mealworms - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Mealworms

Would you eat a mealworm? Bob Simpson hopes your answer is yes — or that you'd at least feed some to your chickens.

Simpson owns Vermont Mealworm Farm, where he raises roughly 2.4 million of the squiggly insects — the larval form of a species of darkling beetle — in a temperature-controlled room below the parlor where he once milked cows. Some people cook with them, but the insects are used primarily as animal feed, and their frass — that is, waste — serves as plant fertilizer.

Until 2013, Simpson was a dairy farmer. He purchased the 900-acre hilltop farm in Braintree from his parents in 1972 and built the large barn in 2002. That enabled him to expand his herd from 120 cows to nearly 400.

"We were good until we had Irene," Simpson explained. The 2011 tropical storm destroyed the farm's crops, and the banks wouldn't lend him money to buy feed. "So, we bought feed instead of paying the banks, and we've been fighting with them ever since."

Simpson milked his last cow on the farm in August 2013; he sold the herd and some of the land and began focusing on raising beef, boarding animals, selling hay and managing rental properties. But Simpson was looking for something new to do with the barn and got bitten by the mealworm bug.

His daughter, Betsy Simpson, who now runs 1000 Stone Farm in Brookfield with Kyle Doda, had learned to cook with insects and other alternative proteins while attending culinary school. That idea sparked her father's interest, and the lower parlor in the old barn seemed an ideal place to set up a mealworm operation.

"Bob was looking for something that nobody had done," said Heather Adams, who helps Simpson run the farm, including the mealworm business. "Plus, we were working outside all winter, and I was getting cold."

"There wasn't really anybody in New England raising them," Simpson added. "Rainbow Mealworms in California says they're the biggest in the world, but it's a long way from California to here when you're shipping live mealworms."

Vermont Mealworm isn't the only local company to try raising insects for human consumption. Flourish Farm in Williston grew crickets, a high-protein food with low environmental impact, from 2014 through 2019. When the owners announced the farm's closure, they wrote, "Commercial cricket farming is an expensive and challenging proposition, requiring scale to be sustainable." They noted that consumer acceptance in the state was three to five years away.

"I think, with crickets, you're always early," Simpson said, noting that mealworms require less infrastructure and have more uses.

Four and a half years since its launch, Vermont Mealworm has grown to about 600 trays — each of which holds roughly 4,000 mealworms in their larval stage. The business has expanded to include both the barn basement and a utility room upstairs.

"We've got more mealworms than there are people in Vermont," Simpson said. "A lot more. More than cows, too."

The farm sells to stores in Vermont and to customers around the country. It offers local pickup, and it ships the live mealworms in cotton bags with cold packs in the summer and hot packs in the winter.

Most of the orders are destined to feed chickens, fish, bluebirds and even bats, Adams said. The farm also raises superworms — a larger beetle species — which are a popular reptile food; and it sells mealworm frass, a by-product commonly used as a plant fertilizer.

Bob Simpson sifting trays of mealworms to separate the frass - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Bob Simpson sifting trays of mealworms to separate the frass

It takes eight months for the insects to complete their life cycle from egg to larva to pupa to beetle. Each fingernail-size black female beetle can lay up to 500 eggs, and both the beetles and larvae eat potatoes and wheat bran, a by-product of the flour-making process.

Every two weeks, Simpson and Adams sift the bran to separate the beetles from the eggs, which are so small they can't be seen with the naked eye.

"You just have to trust that they're there," Adams said.

The farmers keep track of the various stages by date, labeling each of the plastic trays that line Simpson's custom-built wooden racks. Eventually the worms start moving constantly, and, once they are three-eighths of an inch long, they grow quickly. Thankfully, the worms can't crawl out.

"I'm so glad nothing in here flies," Adams added. She admitted she's not a big bug fan and had to wear gloves to handle the mealworms when they first arrived on the farm. Now, she casually runs her hand back and forth through a tray of the soft, warm, wiggling mealworms while she talks.

Simpson and Adams feed the worms raw potatoes, their sole source of moisture, every Tuesday and Friday afternoon. They chop up 100 pounds of spuds — from Chappelle's Vermont Potatoes in Williamstown — per feeding with a French-fry cutter attached to the wall. Feeding the worms locally grown food, and not giving them any chemicals, are central to Vermont Mealworm's approach. That also sets the company apart from large-scale operations.

"We're transparent about what they're fed and how they're kept, so you know what you're feeding your chickens or eating yourself," Adams said.

Due to the cost of these high-quality ingredients, Vermont Mealworm's prices are higher than those of its larger competitors. But the company has built a base of return customers who regularly pay from $2.50 per 100 mealworms to $55 for 5,000. (Mealworms are measured by weight, not number, but Simpson and Adams always throw in an extra handful or so.)

The other day-to-day element of mealworm farming is working with frass. It's basically mealworm waste in the form of excrement and exoskeletons that's a natural plant and soil booster. Mealworm frass contains organic elements such as nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium that plants need to thrive, as well as chitin, which can help plants fight off disease, fungal issues and pests.

Adams and Simpson sift the frass from the mealworm trays and sell the powdery substance in a range of quantities, from one-pound packages ($11) for houseplants to barrels for commercial growers.

"We have some hemp growers that come in and buy three to four thousand dollars' worth of the stuff," Simpson said. "If we sold all we made, we could make more money selling the frass [than the mealworms]."

"It really is a moneymaker," Adams added, "and we have barrels and barrels and barrels of it."

Bags of frass - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Bags of frass

Simpson is hoping that frass sales will live up to their potential and that the revenue — combined with grants and money from investors — will be enough to fund the business' next expansion: a machine that automates the sorting and sifting currently done by hand.

"We could expand quite quickly," Simpson said, noting that the 8,000-square-foot former milking parlor could fit up to 9,000 mealworm trays. "The machine will cost us five or six thousand dollars, but that's what we need to do next."

From there, Simpson hopes to build the culinary aspect of the business — and entice more people to eat mealworms.

"People are interested in eating insects because they're so high in protein," Adams said.

Right now, customers can purchase the live mealworms to cook with. They have a nutty flavor and are easy to sauté or dry-roast, making them ideal for shaking onto salads or mixing into burgers.

But the idea of eating bugs holds a significant yuck factor for many diners, especially those accustomed to a Western diet. Even stirring mealworms into chili or using them as a topping for macaroni and cheese can be a hard sell.

"We need to make them easy to use, like in snack packs," Simpson said. That would require investing in a commercial kitchen and packaging equipment — a big financial jump — to produce convenient, approachable mealworm products for people to eat.

"We'd have to do Vermont maple and Vermont cheddar," he said.

"Or bacon and cheese," Adams added.

In the more immediate future, the farm's mealworms will be making their way to the University of Vermont, where second-year food systems master's student Patrick Shafer will use them to make falafel. His area of research focuses on insect farming and promoting insects as a sustainable protein source.

Shafer and his adviser, associate professor Eric Bishop von Wettberg, recently received a grant to purchase insects from Vermont Mealworm to conduct recipe testing and tastings with focus groups. Their research aims to create an accessible product they can distribute to UVM's dining halls and cafeterias.

"The biggest problem is getting over the disgust component," Shafer told Seven Days. "But disgust is a learned emotion, and it can be unlearned."

Shafer hopes to use falafel, a familiar and popular food, to entice college students to make room for insects in their diets — something other cultures have been doing for millennia and 2 billion people around the world still do today, he explained.

For Simpson, the research is an optimistic sign for the future of mealworm farming. "People would eat more insects," he said. "They just need to get used to it." 

The original print version of this article was headlined "Frass Forward"