Small, Noisy, Crawly and Delicious Crickets

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Kevin Bachhuber unzips the vinyl panel of a large square tent and peels back the insulated fabric that reveals a Mylar-laced chamber. Inside are some really noisy inhabitants.

These inhabitants are in plastic storage bins – the same ones you buy at any discount store – whose lids have been partially cut open and screened. As you look inside the bins, their contents wiggle, jump, crawl and, yes, chirp.

Welcome to Big Cricket Farms, the first indoor farm in the country designed to breed crickets specifically for human consumption. The company, working with the Youngstown Business Incubator, has garnered press coverage in New Scientist magazine.

“This is not a company we’d typically work with,” says Jim Cossler, CEO of the incubator. “But these are extremely bright young kids and that’s what we need in this area.”

Cossler says Bachhuber and his partners were in town last year, reached out to the incubator and the team just “fell in love with Youngstown,” he says. “Plus, it’s a unique, novel business that’s received some national press.”

It’s young people such as Bachhuber who provide the lifeblood of the city’s future, Cossler says. “It’s exactly the thing that will make Youngstown prosper. Folks all across the country realize it’s a cool place to start a business.”

Big Cricket is leasing office space in the incubator building. Just seven weeks into operations, it also occupies an old warehouse that’s chirping with activity.

“These have the capacity for 200,000 to 250,000 full-grown crickets,” Bachhuber says as he points to one of the four tents housed in a once-abandoned warehouse along Marshall Street in Youngstown. “Crickets like it between 80 degrees and 88 degrees,” he says, “and humidity about 90%.”

Big Cricket Farms breeds and nurtures the insects until they’re between six and eight weeks old, the age when crickets are “at their maximum tastiness,” Bachhuber says. Then the crickets are frozen and shipped to a processor where they are ground into flour and baked into products such as chips, health bars and cookies.

Why? Because crickets are rich in protein and present a healthful alternative to the traditional ingredients you find at the grocery store, Bachhuber says.

“In 2006, I went to Thailand, and it’s a staple part of the diet there,” Bachhuber says. “When I came back, I was disappointed you couldn’t get this kind of food here.”

Big Cricket Farms leaped into business after the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations issued a 206-page report late last year that touted the benefits of edible insect cultivation. The objective of the study was to “raise awareness of the many valuable roles that insects play in sustaining nature and human life and will also serve to document the contribution insects already make to diversifying diets and improving food security,” the paper says.

Bacchuber took that study to heart. “The report basically said, ‘Hey, Western World, everybody else is doing this. Maybe you should, too,” he says. “That’s been the mobilization point.”

Less than two months ago, Bacchuber and his partner, Jaci Ampulski, director of operations, relocated from California to set up shop in the Mahoning Valley. “I’m from Green Bay originally,” he says. “We were in California most recently, but we came here – we liked it here better.”

Bachhuber was looking for a “Rust Belt” town with a declining population to start the business, he says, and fell in love with Youngstown. “It’s one of those Rust Belt cities that’s clearly coming back, if it hasn’t already.”

Organizations such as the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. and the Youngstown Business Incubator are the type of groups that Bachhuber says is pointing the city in the right direction. He’s s since moved to the Wick Park neighborhood.

There’s real money in the cricket business, Bachhuber says. Crickets sold for animal feed, for example, make up a $60 billion a year industry. A consulting firm in San Francisco, Tiny Farms, helped Big Cricket with its initial business plan. “I’m a lifelong urban gardener,” he says. “Crickets are pretty simple, but we have a set of expert entomologists that we talk to all the time.”

Raising crickets is also cost-efficient, Bachhuber says as he looks inside one of the bins. “It takes two pounds of feed to make one pound of crickets versus 25 pounds for one pound of cow,” he points out. “It takes one gallon of water versus 2,000 gallons of water” to support other livestock.

Big Cricket Farms is in business to specifically satisfy the human palate. “Crickets have a slightly nutty taste to them,” Bacchuber says, but that can change depending on what the insects eat. “If you feed them apples and rosemary, then you get apple and rosemary-flavored crickets,” he says.

He projects there’ll be about 8,400 breeders in the next round, enough to begin harvesting weekly. By next year, the operation could raise as many as 25 million crickets per month.

To start, Big Cricket Farms holds about 5,000 breeder crickets spread over two plastic bins, replete with food and watering jugs. Each bin contains a dish of shredded coconut, where the crickets prefer to lay their eggs. The eggs are then incubated at another grow tent in separate bins.

“Including babies, we probably have between one-quarter million and a million crickets,” he says, as he displays a bin of minuscule crickets just hatched within the last 48 hours.

A pound of crickets sells for roughly $4.50, and it takes four pounds to make a single pound of cricket flour, Bachhuber says. “That’s not a bad ratio,” he remarks.

His company exceeds all the regulations that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has in place for such an operation, he adds.

Bachhuber envisions more growth for Big Cricket Farms in the coming months, and already he and Ampulski have plans to move into a larger, 5,000-square-foot building nearby.

“It would be easier to control operations and we would use this warehouse for a research facility, where we would let Youngstown State University grad students and undergraduates do research,” he says.

Pictured: Kevin Bachhuber at his Youngstown cricket warehouse.

Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the MidJune edition of The Business Journal, in subscribers' mailboxes this week.

Copyright 2014 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
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