Set the Table with…Crickets
Written onMay 25 , 2016
Like many new fathers, Stephen Swanson wanted to do something to make his children’s world a better place. After reading a 2013 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization about the health and environmental benefits of eating insects, he told his wife, Jen, that he wanted to start a cricket farm in their Williston garage.
She didn’t believe him at first—“I kind of came out of left field with this,” Stephen admits—but since then the pair have spent more than a year experimenting with their chirpy herd and have recently expanded the operation, named Tomorrow’s Harvest, into their basement.
“This is kind of a final proof of concept,” Stephen says. “Eventually, we want to get into a warehouse and really start upping the production.”
Tomorrow’s Harvest has not yet begun selling crickets commercially, but Stephen led a City Market workshop last fall to introduce curious participants to the idea of incorporating insects in their diet. He demonstrated how to make a “gateway” cricket dish: cookies, with cricket flour standing in for some of its wheat-based cousin.
Others have held insectivore dinners in the area, to great success. A few years ago, Rachael Young, of EatYummyBugs.com, put on entomophagic, or bug-eating, meals in Montpelier and at ArtsRiot, where diners sampled a variety of insects in dishes from tacos to soup to handmade chocolates from Nutty Steph’s in Middlesex. Rachel says that during that time she met increasingly more people who had already tasted insects. She feels that eating bugs was going from “cutting edge to mainstream” in just a short time.
Why crickets? Well, that future warehouse space Stephen mentioned is one of the big advantages that insects offer over traditional animal protein sources: They require a significantly smaller amount of room and resources to raise. All they really need, says Stephen, is “a box, some things for them to crawl around in, and food.”
Crickets aren’t picky eaters, either. “They’ll eat anything—they’ll eat meat, they’ll eat plants, they’ll eat each other…,“ he says. ”They’ll eat cardboard, if they’re hungry enough.”
The Swansons are even thinking of pursuing official organic certification for the crickets themselves; “hopefully down a road, but not right away,” Stephen explains, due to the cost, although he adds that they currently feed the crickets an organic, non-GMO powder, specially formulated for crickets, that ensures the insects have plenty of protein and vitamins. Johanna Setta, a certification specialist assistant at Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT), said that other certification programs in the U.S. have granted the organic label to insects using an adapted livestock standard. If asked to certify an organic insect operation, NOFA-VT would follow suit, although she noted that additional requirements would have to be met if value-added products, such as cricket flour, were produced.
The time span from the just-hatched pinhead to the ready-to-harvest adult is a short 7 to 12 weeks, depending on the temperature. “The warmer it is, the faster they live and go through their lifecycle,” Stephen says. He aims to harvest after eight molts, before the adults develop their wings and the females their ovipositors, which they use to deposit their eggs in the ground. “Those bits are a little harder to digest,” he remarks.
At harvest time, the crickets are popped into a fridge until they go dormant (a state called diapause), then moved to a freezer where they die.
The Swansons’ colony comprises the gray-brown European house crickets (Acheta domestica). “The people in the know, the people who have been eating insects, say they’re the tastiest,” Stephen says. And to allay any fears of these creatures escaping into the Vermont wilds and pushing out native species, he explains, “They wouldn’t take over North America—it’s too cold here, and they’re not as aggressive as our native black field crickets. But it would make a lot of birds happy!”
In cultures in which various insects get regular culinary billing, the specimens are usually collected in the wild, so insect farming for human consumption is still a relatively new field. Stephen is joining just a handful of other entomological farmers in North America in this endeavor, which features a lot of trial and error. “When you think about all the time and money that’s been spent perfecting the art of raising chickens and cattle,” he says, “that hasn’t happened for insects.”
Despite the sci-fi movies depicting insects, particularly cockroaches, surviving a humanity-killing disaster, crickets are actually not all that hardy. “They are very susceptible to small environmental changes—almost like the canary in the coal mine—so you have to be careful about tainted food or water,” Stephen says.
The nutritional benefits of crickets are hard to deny. They’re full of protein, with 100 grams of crickets packing 12.9 grams of protein, as well as omega-3s, fiber, calcium, and several essential vitamins such as vitamin B12. And they don’t taste bad, either. Meredith Knowles, the outreach and education coordinator at Burlington’s City Market, had the chance to sample some cricket cuisine at the class Stephen led through the co-op. What did she think? “Popcorn…it was airy and crunchy, like roasted chickpeas,” she said.
Stephen was no insect aficionado before founding Tomorrow’s Harvest. “My wife and I had never eaten insects before—this was weird for us,” he recalls. “We actually started the company before we had even eaten any crickets.” He recommends roasting or dehydrating them, then seasoning them like popcorn. “Once you put that first one in your mouth and get over the chewing, the mental block is pretty much gone.”
Now that he and his family are well past the “ick” factor of eating insects, their preferred method of preparing the crickets is sautéing them to “soften them up and give them the flavor and texture of shrimp.” (With the mention of these crustaceans, it’s important to note that allergies to shellfish likely include an allergy to crickets and other insects due to their common carbohydrate, chitin.)
As for the future? Stephen can hardly wait. After all, his decision to name the company “Tomorrow’s Harvest” instead of “Cricket Harvest” was a conscious one. He and his wife wanted to “leave the possibility open to include other species. There are more than a million insect species in the world, with more than 2,000 having been identified as safe to eat. The opportunity is there, and we want to explore it.”