I called to talk about crickets, but ended up with plenty to think about regarding company culture, the future of innovation, serendipity, and even artificial intelligence! Coalo Valley Farms has a lot going for it, especially strong leadership.
A little more about Coalo Valley Farms: Coalo Valley Farms is an urban cricket farm focused on the production of alternative protein through sustainable means. Coalo Valley Farms serves both businesses and private clients who are interested in eating healthier and/or reducing their environmental footprint. Established in 2014, the Coalo Valley Farms operates in San Fernando Valley out of a single farm that is modified for the organic and cruelty-free production and processing of premium cricket-based protein powder. Coalo Valley Farms focuses on giving consumers an alternative option when they choose how to ingest their protein. Cricket-based protein offers a healthier and more environmentally friendly solution to protein from traditional livestock such as cows, pigs, and chickens.
I had the opportunity to speak with Elliot Abraham, one of the founders of the farm. After all of thepress the farm received a few weeks ago, I could tell Elliot was accustomed to answering my first, run-of-the-mill question, “So, tell me a little bit about how you got your start! What got your interested in cricket farming?”
I was a bit surprised to hear his simple response, “Well… I dunno man. It just seemed like the right idea, ya know?” He later explained to me the importance of cricket farming, especially in today’s environmental state. If you’re not a follower of this blog or are not aware of the reasons why cricket farming could be a kick-ass, sustainable solution, see below:
Given Elliot’s enthusiasm over cricket farming, I assumed he was fulfilling some lifelong dream. He told me, however, that had I asked him a year ago if he would end up as a cricket farmer he would have, “Laughed. A lot. And then probably sip a beer.” Elliot does come from an interesting background, as does most of his team! Always interested in medicine Elliot pursued a pre-med path from a young age. In middle school he picked up an insatiable interest in stocks, which led him to pursue courses in economics at college.. He still ended up taking the MCAT “for the heck of it,” but was admitted into a master’s in pharmaceutical finance in Sweden, which he of course accepted. He was exposed to pharmacy, finance, a little tech, and, at the young age of 25, serendipitously arrived at what may be his greatest adventure yet: cricket farming.
This chimera of backgrounds is likely what makes Coalo Valley Farms such an early leader in the industry. [After this phone interview I visited the farm to meet Peter, an english major turned cricket-oologist, and Nate, a former Agri-major.]
When asked about the key to his early success, he said, “We like to keep it weird.” Just weird enough, it seems. Elliot’s relaxed mannerism and down-to-earth way of describing how he runs his business may make one think that Coalo Valley Farms is just a couple of dudes farming some happy crickets. While that may be true, there’s a lot more to the story.
Elliot makes a point to explain how “not-old-school” Coalo Valley Farms is. The team believes in putting their varied backgrounds to use in creating innovative, multi-disiplinarty solutions in the farm. When asked how he felt that the livestock industry has 1000 years or so of innovation on the cricket farmers, he calmly stated that it’s not an issue. There’s so many ways to tweak innovations in other fields to make them applicable to ento-farms. “Searching outside your industry can save a ton of time,” Elliot explained. He added, “There are some technologies that have taken other farms years to figure out that we solved in a day.” Elliot is referencing how his farm produces powder, a technique he learned from his days working in pharmacy.
A day in the life at Coalo Vally Farms is as variable and hard to capture in words as any young company would be. Some days he’s doing business development, placing orders, running social media, and always in the farm with the happy crickets. He said that a lot of the problems that might arise in a young tech startup similarly arise in a startup farm. “Instead of fixing virtual bugs…we’re feeding real ones!” (adorable). Most days, at the very least, involve going in to check on the little critters, feed them, and maybe harvest or clean the cages.
And here’s the important part: Coalo Valley Farms has an open door policy. One of the biggest issues that may face cricket farms in the future is the slower pace of innovation. Other farms operate with “Willy-Wonka-Like” secrecy – requiring NDAs and more before letting anyone see what’s behind their closed doors. This secrecy will only extend the time it takes for cricket farmers to more quickly reach economies of scale and reduce the cost of production. Elliot proudly explained that anyone can come in and see what they are doing at Coala Valley Farms. He likens the farms to a Coca-Cola factory – “You can go tour the Cola factory and see what’s inside and how they operate, but you still won’t know their secret ingredient so it’s fine!”
He agrees that more farms should be open-door. Even though they are a business and need to make money, they recognize that there is a larger operation at stake: getting the public accustomed to eating insects in the first place. All of these cricket farms need to understand that they are primarily on Team Entomophagy! Here’s the big picture: crickets are healthier and more environmentally friendly than cows, pigs, and chickens. We live in a world where, on top of all of our other environmental (water crisis, etc) concerns, we have “nooooooo idea where our food comes from…and the truth is often disgusting.” Crickets can be grown anywhere – in emerging economies, on top of a skyscraper, in big cities… “You could even grow crickets in Antartica in a good enclosed space!” Elliot noted, “Anyone can come into our farms and see exactly where there food is coming from.” He estimated that a pound of crickets could be produced from only 4-6 cubic feet of space.
Speaking of the variety of locations in which crickets can be grown, why did Coalo Valley Farms decide on California? Most of the founding team hails from New England, but after mulling over a few options like Southern Florida, they decided that the culture of California, especially LA, was the right fit. Perhaps they were a bit influenced by the story of sushi – a food once considered barbaric that took off in LA a few decades ago. California is also a sustainable place to rear crickets, as it is naturally the temperature that crickets thrive in.
Los Angeles is also the home to a ton of celebrities. One question I always like asking those in the ento-field is: “Where do you stand on celebrity endorsement of eating insects?” Some are worried that the movement towards seeing crickets as a sustainable, normalized food source will be derailed if crickets are seen as a fear-factory “stunt” that celebs do for the shock factor. Elliot got straight to the point, “That’s a good question. I don’t mean to be crass, but I just don’t care. However insects gain public attention, it’s still a step in good direction.”
I asked Elliot to put on his psychic-hat and divine for me the time it would take for crickets to be in grocery stores. He predicted that local grocery stores will begin to carry insect protein within the next five years, and nationwide adoption will occur in the next twenty to twenty-five years.
Once two nerds start talking about that far in the future, it’s inevitable that A.I. and other crazy topics some up, so we left off the interview there. Lessons learned? We can be excited and hopeful for the future of sustainable agriculture because we have some great people in the field working their butts off. It is my hope that more in the field adopt an open door policy so that we can reach nationwide acceptance sooner than later.