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Crunchy: Farm hopes to expand into edible insect market

December 8, 2018

WEST MONROE, La. (AP) — From the outside, Armstrong’s Cricket Farm in West Monroe doesn’t look like what most people think of as a farm. It’s a series of 13 buildings tucked right by an elevated portion of Interstate 20 on Wood Street. It’s not a pastoral scene, but it’s a productive one.

The Armstrong family grows one species of cricket, Acheta domesticus, and they can ship about 14 million a week — live or frozen. Operations Manager Brandon Armstrong said they also sell seven types of worm, four of which are raised in the same facility.

Acheta domesticus is better known as the brown house cricket, but it’s sometimes called a gray cricket.

Live crickets are sold as pet food and bait. Armstrong’s can ship to any state in the lower 48 states and ship internationally to any country that permits the insects.

Frozen crickets are sold for human consumption and can be freeze-dried for use in pet food.

“The people we’re selling it to now, what they do is process it into a protein powder, and they use it as an additive, or as a protein source,” Brandon said.

Environmental sustainability is a major factor in the push for people to intentionally eat insects. It takes substantially more water to raise a pound of beef versus a pound of crickets. The insects also don’t create as much greenhouse gas and, as Armstrong’s proves, can be raised in mass numbers on a small footprint of land.

The cricket’s entire body is edible, and there’s a higher ratio of protein per gram than in a serving of beef.

“As far as the protein goes, it’s a full protein, meaning it’s got a full amino file. ... You’re getting all of the amino acids from the protein of the cricket. There’s no need to supplement there. It’s got all its branch-chain amino acids and essential amino acids,” Brandon said.

Essentially, it’s the same to eat the bugs whole-roasted or freeze-dried and ground into a powder. He’s eaten a few crickets on a dare, but they still aren’t a staple of his own diet.

“If you want to eat an entire cricket, go for it. If there’s an ick factor to it, then you can use the powder and use that as your protein source,” he said.

The human consumption market is a growth opportunity for the farm. It’s about 4 percent of their business. So far, Armstrong’s only sells the worms as exotic pet food.

Additionally, pet food manufacturers are using crickets as a hypoallergenic protein option.

The inside stays in a perpetual, if artificial, summer. The six-legged livestock thrive in high heat and humidity, so the buildings where they grow stay a toasty 90 degrees year-round.

Brandon said keeping the crickets in toasty temperatures keeps them from dying of shock during summer shipping.

The temperature can control how fast the insects grow, and there are cool-down areas where they can slow the bugs’ development if they have too many of one size.

In 2009, he said, there was an outbreak of densovirus in insect farms. He said it can act similarly to Colony Collapse Disease in bees, which can decimate a population with sudden deaths, even if the biology of the ailments isn’t similar.

Since then, they’ve worked diligently to avoid getting the virus because it renders a facility useless. Avoiding densovirus involves a lot of cleaning and sanitation.

He said they think poor hygiene, overcrowding and a weakened immune system in the crickets can exacerbate the risk of transmission if a cricket is exposed.

“It’s much like any other livestock. You make sure they have food, water, shelter and kind of let Mother Nature do its thing,” Brandon said.

They’re raised in 6-foot long, 2-foot deep, plastic boxes with an edge of slick, shiny tape inside the upper edge. (Crickets can’t climb smooth surfaces.) They keep paper and egg flats in the boxes to give the animals climbing surfaces.

To pick breeding stock, they pull out a couple hundred-hundred thousand crickets at a time.

“Whenever they hatch out, there’s normally more females than males, and the male adult cricket chirps its wings as the mating call. So only the adult male makes any sound,” Brandon said.

They’re all raised together for about four and a half weeks, then they pick the ones they think are the best of the crop. They look for factors including well-formed wings. Once they pick the lucky ones, they’re cleaned and moved to the breeding area.

The facility keeps a specific area set up at optimal cricket mating temperatures. (Mood lighting, if you will.)

About 10 days later, the eggs hatch, and the new crop starts its six-week life cycle. Initially, they’re about the size of ants.

Brandon said they look just like adult crickets without the wings, which they don’t grow until they reach adulthood. Because of this, only about a quarter of the facility sounds like crickets. The nursery rooms are silent.

Generally, Brandon said, the business is getting back to its bread and butter by focusing on bait and small retail stores.

“From the ’50′s up until the advent of the internet, everything was word of mouth, it was telephone, letters,” Brandon said.

His great-grandfather and grandfather got orders from zoos across the country by mail.

“The ways that it’s changed is we’re in constant contact with our customers. They can get ahold of us pretty much 24/7. If they need something, we can try to it out to them in the best way possible,” he said. “Rather than selling large quantities to distributors and things like that now, we sell more to the actual individuals themselves.”

The operation employs 25 workers. It’s the second-largest cricket farm in the country and the oldest.

It all started with a fishing story, Brandon said.

Tal Armstrong was a plumber an avid fisherman working in Montgomery, Alabama. There was a dumpsite for scrap metal where he found a species of cricket he liked for fishing. They worked better for fishing than most of the wild crickets around.

He’d have his son, Gene “Sonny” Armstrong go catch bait before he went fishing, and Sonny finally got tired of making the trip. He kept some leftover from a fishing trip and put them in a 55-gallon drum with sand.

The next week, there were little bugs that looked like sugar ants. They were baby crickets. It started as a venture to raise their own bait, then Tal started selling them to his friends.

The first farm was started in 1947 in Glennville, Georgia. Tal picked West Monroe as a second location because of all the great fishing, and they opened the expansion in 1955. (The Louisiana and Georgia operations now are sister sites but operate under separate owners.)

Brandon is a fourth-generation cricket farmer. He worked at the farm from age 12 to 19, spent a decade in the U.S. Marines and rejoined the business in 2012.

He said coming back for him is about loyalty and wanting to see the farm succeed.

His baby girl, Gigi, was born Oct. 21.

“She hasn’t been up here yet. If she wants to be a cricket farmer, she can be a cricket farmer, but I don’t know if her mom will want her to do that, so we’ll have to see,” he said with a grin.

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