“Try finding a landlord that lets you raise 5 million crickets in his building…” I hear a soft chuckle on the other end of the line. “Yeah – we’re excited to expand but there’s a lot to consider!”
I’m speaking with James Williams, owner of Crunchy Critter Farms. Williams, along with Sean Schultz, Brian Battle, Elliott Blair, and Alex Schneider started Crunchy Critter Farms in 2016 to raise wholesale quantities of crickets for human consumption.
If their current incredibly educational site, rigorous focus on quality, and meticulous attention to detail is any indication of what the future holds, Crunchy Critter Farms is on track to be one of the leading wholesale suppliers of human-grade crickets out there.
Williams has just started telling me about how excited his team is to continue scaling the business. “In fact,” he says, “we should be at 100% production capacity in just three to four weeks!” Williams and his team have wasted no time in building out operations for their cricket farm. They have proprietary technologies in development, ongoing studies on optimal breeding climates, and a business plan with diversified and growing order lists. To an outside observer, it seems like the team has been doing this for years, but that’s far from the case.
“We worked in IT solutions before starting Crunchy Critter Farms,” Williams answered when I asked about life before Crunchy Critter Farms. That was not the answer I would have expected! “And before that I was in the military.”
THE ROAD TO CRICKET FARMING
Williams grew up in a small farm town in Iowa. Even as a kid, he did not know what he wanted to do in life, but he was certain he didn’t want to grow up and die in the same place. Thus, on August 17th 2001 18-year-old James Williams enlisted in the U.S. military. Three weeks later, the tragedies of September 11th occurred. Williams knew he was going to be put to the test sooner than expected.
Williams shared vignettes like this with me – imparted glimpses into his life – to help explain where he adopted many of his business doctrines from. For instance, his early experience in the military taught him one of his favorite mantras: Don’t panic until it’s time to panic.
After the military, Williams was an IT consultant and project manager. He worked for a larger company but soon realized that he did not like being told what to do. I didn’t get the sense that Williams meant this in the obstinate sort of way; rather, he’s the type of individual to think “Hey – I have the skills to do this on my own, so why not?” He’s a creative – always coming up with new business ideas and different ways of tackling situations. Those with the serial entrepreneur gene can find it stifling to work in bigger businesses where they are constantly told not to rock the corporate boat and to stick with the status quo.
Williams convinced a few of his friends to jump ship and start their own company called Ready Set Go IT Solutions. It was here that Williams really honed his leadership and management skills. But how did a war vet IT manager end up farming crickets?
OPPORTUNITIES IN EDIBLE INSECTS
Simple: he saw opportunity. Williams explains, “I saw the opportunity as it was presented by a few articles I had read. I noticed a burgeoning need in the human-grade insect industry – few people were filling the needs of bulk orders.” As for the team? Williams proves that great leadership can convince teams to head in truly any direction. He recounts, “Well, Sean was in the military with me and always tagged along with me in crazy adventures. He’s great like that. Elliott, Alex, and Brian all worked with me in other opportunities – I was their boss at the IT company. One day I posed this venture to them and, in less than 24 hours, they were all in.” He pauses for a minute, then, “I guess I’m lucky to have a group that is always willing to try making the next big thing… even it was square wheels!”
A leader, and idea, and a dream team – Crunchy Critter Farms was thus born. They did their research and were humbled by the warm support they received from those already in the industry like Big Cricket Farms and Aaron Dossey of All Things Bugs and Griopro. Reaching out to those already in the field taught Crunchy Critter Farms that one of the largest issues is the huge shortage in supply that is impacting cost and demand.
Williams and he team decided to supply for large, wholesale orders to industry suppliers like GRIOPRO. While that means they will not be selling to small bloggers like myself (unless I found myself in need of 1000lbs of crickets, however) it does seem to be a successful mode. “We already have large presale orders rolling in. We’ve also been in contact with entities like industrial fish farms to sell off any extra crickets as feed.”
RAISING HIGH QUALITY EDIBLE CRICKETS
We digress for a moment to discuss best practices when it comes to raising and storing crickets. Williams elaborates on the systems they have in place to ensure freshness for their products. After the crickets are harvested, they are put asleep in fridges. After they are safely asleep, the crickets are placed in a freezer to finalize the euthanasia process. Crunchy Critter Farms does not keep their crickets for longer than 24 to 48 hours in order to ensure the highest quality. Anything longer than that gets shipped off to fish farms.
This is not for health reasons, necessarily, but for taste reasons. The proteins inside of animal flesh break down after being exposed to extreme temperatures for too long. “That’s why restaurants have those trendy ‘fresh never frozen’ signs up,” explains Williams. “Our product comes in at the same standard.”
Crunchy Critter Farms does not mess around when it comes to quality. It’s not just the freshness of the crickets that receives the utmost care; the crickets are raised to be top-notch from birth. Williams tells me, “Strict dietary standards of ultra-high quality food and purified distilled water are maintained and constantly updated with our crickets.” The farmers are proud of their facilities and are urging the involvement of inspectors and certifiers. The process of getting organic certified – or even having their facilities looked at by government officials familiar with entomophagy – is a slow process. The agencies that come out to do the inspections are often unfamiliar with how to grade insects as food or of how to label them. “That’s another reason we have a supply of alternative customers like industrial fish farmers. If there are moments in the future when we have to wait on regulators to update or readjust their paperwork, we have other places to offload product to.”
How do we move this process along more quickly? I asked Williams for his thoughts and he was short and sweet in his reply, “Just the number of producers.” We need to have more cricket companies and related businesses say, “Hey, inspect us!” There has also been a lot of talk recently about the first lobbyist group for edible insects, and Williams is excited about that.
CHALLENGES TO EXPANDING CRICKET FARMS
Currently, Crunchy Critter Farms is most excited about the same thing that presents its biggest challenge: expanding. Certification forces like the FDA still provide puzzling situations for businesses in the edible insect industry. A lot of the people and businesses Crunchy Critter Farms interacts with have super sanitary and sterile work spaces. Until the FDA and other certifiers recognize edible insects as part of this sterile ecosystem, it’s hard to find local spaces that will let businesses put crickets in their ovens.
“We were super lucky with our landlord. It will be difficult to find buildings to expand into that will be as cool. We want to, for example, find a smaller building and set it up with industrial ovens but the search has its complications,” Williams notes. Another challenge that should get easier as the industry expands is the availability of research and standard information on edible insects. “As the industry gets larger we’ll get more funding for research. The more research we have access to – the larger our sample size – the less we will have to worry about things like informational inconsistencies. Currently, you might see a statistic that crickets contain more protein than beef. But how much exactly? Different companies might list different stats, but that does not mean they are incorrect.”
He continues, “Protein levels can vary from cricket to cricket and producer to producer. Depends on the food you feed them. If you feed crickets a lettuce-heavy diet, they will contain lower levels of protein. If you do not feed crickets enough greens, however, they will fail to have those omegas and B vitamins that we laud them for. We are working on normalizing the nutritional values of our crickets across the board, and there’s still some work to be done on perfecting and optimizing the nutritional profiles of our products as an industry.”
“Another thing,” Williams notes, “When stats are floating around we have to look at the whole picture. It’s not just the nutritional value of crickets that might vary from farm to farm. When we see stats about how much less water crickets take to raise than cows, for instance, we need to remember that cows very in water consumption from region to region. When we are talking about places hat don’t get a lot of rainfall, cows take a lot more water to subsidize from rainwater to raise.”
COLLABORATION IN THE BUG BUSINESS
We spoke for a while on the importance of continued collaboration in the edible insect industry. It is important that we keep several veins of open source information flowing, both locally and globally. Western cricket farms benefit from open source innovation that aids innovation and best practices. Globally we can be better about sharing information to help families that have been using insects as essential sources of nutrition and additional income. How do you best raise crickets in a trash can? What’s the optimal manner to grow crickets in a drought?
Companies like Crunchy Critter Farms understand the necessity of providing tools to help other people in the process of developing and gathering information in these areas. Williams recounted his own gratitude for the support he was shown in his earlier days in the insect business. “People already running cricket farms like Aaron Dossey and Kevin Bachhuber did not hesitate to recommend good books or to provide counsel on how to get started, “recalled Williams.
While it is phenomenal that there is such support between farmers in the cricket community, I was curious as to the response of William’s own family. When I asked him, he chuckled. “Their first response was ‘Oh my god I could never eat crickets…’ I think the first thing that came to their mind was eating a fistful of crickets like they have seen on Fear Factor. I took the time and explained a bit more about what eating crickets was actually like… I showed them the powder and how you eat it… things became a lot easier after that.”
Williams’ favorite recipe is the classic cricket pancake. He shared his recipe with us:
- 1 1/2 cups of Cricket Baking Flour (just baking flour and cricket powder mixed at a 3:1)
- 3 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 tbsp sugar
- 1 egg
- 3 tbsp butter, melted
- 1 1/4 cups milk
- 1 tsp vanillaMix all dry ingredients thoroughly, Melt butter and Mix milk, egg and vanilla in a separate container. Pour the liquids into the dry and mix until batter is smooth. Cook on a well oiled skillet or pan. Enjoy.
The pancakes are delicious if you are used to using whole grain oats in your breakfasts – they have more texture than fluffy buttermilks. As for other insects, Williams has experimented with a lot of different products made by other leaders in the industry. He loves Exo bars, Bitty Foods, and more. He wanted to see what other experts in the field were making with high quality products. Crunchy Critter Farms is excited for what’s to come if the products currently on the market are a good indication of what’s to come. I asked Williams to put on his fortune teller’s hat to tell me when he thinks we’ll see cricket powder in grocery stores.
Williams answered, “You’re not going to find cricket powder in the meat isle as ground up “cricket beef.” Instead, we’ll likely see cricket powder, sometimes called cricket flour, popping up more and more frequently. In fact, cricket powder is already in a few grocery chains in Seattle. Exo bars and several others are in major level grocery chains across the country. Growth in the past 3 years has already been off the charts.”
THE FUTURE OF CRUNCHY CRITTER FARMS
Currently Crunchy Critter farms is not looking to join the ranks of other consumer products quite yet. For now, they are gathering a reputation amongst wholesalers – quickly so! I asked Williams what Crunchy Critter Farms is most excited about currently. He happily shared, “Within three months of going from pilot testing to production we’re growing fast! We are about to be at five million crickets. The problem is now space – we’re already out of it. We got a great deal on the space we are in now, and our landlord has been amazing. Try finding a landlord that will let you grow five million crickets in his building – it’s not easy.”
Soon they will start pursuing alternative funding options – perhaps even going down the Venture Capital route. There’s a lot of magic brewing behind their walls that is not limited to the crickets themselves.
Crunchy Critter Farms also is developing proprietary processes and unique engineering products. These range from self-contained cricket raising apparatuses to remotely controlled environment settings devices. Williams gleefully dove into a bit of detail about their top-secret lab products, “A sealed environment that will go a long way to minimize external factors will be critical for scaling growing operations. One of the big things you will run into, for instance, is small flies making their way into your boxes of crickets. They will multiply rather quickly in these small spaces. The question is how to eliminate outside factors while maintaining extremely rigorous controls on the inside environment. You have to keep the space at an optimal humidity and temperature. Yes, this is a challenge but we have big solutions in the works… including Bluetooth and wireless-enabled cricket boxes.”
Ok… Wifi enabled? Bluetooth technology? And all for crickets? If you’re remotely interested in the edible insect industry, hearing things like this will hopefully make you as pumped up as I am!
WHY EATING CRICKETS MATTERS
The team at Crunchy Critter Farms is getting a lot right. They make me excited for the direction the edible insect industry is taking and hopeful for the approaching future. So, lookout landlords and government regulators… we’re coming for you!
I wanted to take a moment to share (for my readers outside of the “bug community”) a bit more about why the work businesses like Crunchy Critter Farms are doing is so important. Edible insects will play a huge role in sustaining the health of our food and environmental systems in the coming years. The facts you’ll read below are taken from Crunchy Critter Farms delightfully educational website.
If a single family replaced beef with cricket based protein in one meal per week, they could save 235,000 gallons of water. Crickets and other insects produce the same protein by weight using 1200% less feed, 5000% less water, and produce 99% less greenhouse gas emissions while doing so (than traditional livestock). Most insects are incredibly dense in protein and micronutrients. From dry-roasted crickets to bbq mealworms… there is a taste and texture for everyone!
ONE LAST NOTE
Thank you, Crunchy Critter Farms. You’ve lit my sustainable-cricket-fire. Special shoutout to James Williams for taking the time to patiently answer my questions all the while! Please check out their site and support them at: http://crunchycritterfarms.com/