Are Insects the New Livestock?
Although Shelby Smith grew up on an Iowa row-crop farm, her passion for basketball led her to Ireland after college. After four and a half years coaching and working as an investment banker in Dublin, it was time for a change.
The family farm back home was ready for transition, too. Even though she spent more time on the basketball court than working on the farm as a kid, last fall she decided, “Well, I’ll give farming a try.”
In September 2017, Smith handed in her resignation at the bank and returned to the Midwest. The night she got off the plane, Smith learned to drive a tractor. Through the remainder of the harvest season, she ran the grain cart. “I am fairly certain I spilled corn in every field we were in, but it all worked out,” she laughs.
After the season wrapped up, Smith made time to talk and strategize with her father. She recalls him saying, “If you don’t want to fight the whole corn and soybean thing like I have for the last 30-plus years and want to come up with a niche, go for it. We’ll help you get started.”
A Growing Niche
As an avid podcast listener, Smith heard about entomophagy, the human use of insects as food, in several episodes of her favorite shows. According to Global Market Insights, the edible insect market was worth $55 million and growing in 2017. The company expects the U.S. market for edible insects to exceed $710 million by 2024, citing growing consumer awareness and interest in protein-rich foods.
Chapul, one of the first companies to sell cricket food products in the U.S., claims it takes 100 gallons of water to produce 71 grams of cricket protein compared with 6 grams of beef protein.
“Crickets are 60% protein by dry weight,” notes Smith. She says the insects are also a good source of iron, calcium, and vitamin B12. They have nine essential amino acids, as well.
After doing her research, on January 1, 2018, Smith sent her parents an article. She had discovered a niche she was interested in.
“What about crickets?” she asked her parents. “They both kind of looked at me and said, ‘What about crickets?’ ” she recalls with a laugh.
A Leap into Cricket Farming
Ten days later, Smith ordered her first 10,000 crickets. She bought a few 18-gallon plastic storage totes at Walmart and prepared them for her new stock. Smith cut a hole in the lid and added a screen to allow fresh air in the container. Then, she placed egg cartons in each tote to offer the crickets a place to hide.
Crickets can eat vegetable scraps, but Smith has found that feeding her insects chicken feed works best. “Because it’s a dry substrate, I don’t have as much of a mold problem,” she explains.
She also ensures each tote has a water source. Because young crickets are so tiny they can drown in a single drop of water, a wet sponge provides adequate water for the crickets as they grow.
Today, Smith’s operation consists of two heated rooms of totes. “Crickets like to be between 80°F. and 100°F.,” she says.
Each production cycle is eight to 10 weeks.
After overcoming a few mishaps along the learning curve, she has built the population to a stable 250,000. It’s her goal to grow her population to 20 million. Someday, she hopes to partner with other cricket farmers to have the volume of crickets necessary for mass production of the protein bars and dry roasted crickets she sells today.
Planning and Pivoting
Christa Hartsook is the small farms program coordinator at Iowa State University. She helps farmers – like Smith – who are interested in diversifying to plan and understand the markets that may be available. She stresses the importance of doing due diligence before jumping into a new idea.
“Shelby did a tremendous job in really researching that enterprise and that industry to know the connections that she needed to make,” Hartsook says.
Originally, Smith planned to just raise insects to sell to processors that create food products. The more she researched, however, the more she was interested in making the finished products herself. Now she sells her food items under the Gym-N-Eat Crickets brand. With her background as an athlete, it makes total sense.
“The main reason I started targeting the active lifestyle community is because I am part of that community,” she explains. Since hanging up her basketball shoes, Smith has become an experienced ultra-marathoner and obstacle race competitor.
“Generally speaking, we tend to be more of your early adopters,” Smith says. “We are the ones who are just crazy enough to try bugs and love reaping the potential health benefits from them.”
• Shelby Smith | gymneatcrickets.com
• Christa Hartsook | extension.iastate.edu/smallfarms