Coalo Valley Farms is California's first urban farm devoted exclusively to producing edible crickets as a protein alternative. The farm is the brainchild of Elliott Mermel, who got the idea last August after hearing about cricket-powder protein bars created by the company Exo. A few Google searches, some in-depth research into the market for edible crickets, and a handful of L.A. scouting trips later, and Mermel and a few friends started farming crickets in the San Fernando Valley.
Currently, the team is focused on fulfilling their Kickstarter pledges. Once those are complete, they will begin selling their cricket powder to farmers' markets (they already have 21 in the L.A. area lined up), a few local restaurants, and individual consumers who want to get their hands on this alternative protein source.
I spoke with Mermel about the farm, and whether or not folks will ever get over their insect-eating phobia.
What's been the hardest part of starting the farm?
Elliott Mermel: There are so many unknowns. If you want to start a cow farm, or a chicken or pig farm, you could hop on Google and go to any number of websites that sell all the equipment you need. But that doesn't exist for crickets or any edible insects. So, a large amount of what we do every day is figuring out how to use tools from other industries and make them applicable for what we're doing on the farm. We're in the truck right now, and in the back we have some wood and copper pipes to build our own solar water heater we're putting on the roof to keep the crickets warm. Another thing was finding the bins for the crickets to live in. It took us nearly eight weeks to find bins that were big enough, cheap enough, and durable enough. Sourcing is probably been the most difficult thing for us so far. Every day is a new puzzle and experiment.
How do you get the crickets?
Mermel: We buy larvae and young, under-a-week-old crickets from a variety of farms across the United States. Now, we're in the breeding stage. We're breeding crickets that we sourced from various farms around the country, and blending them together so as to prevent inbreeding down the line.
Is in-breeding a big concern for edible crickets?
Mermel: We don't know for sure, but these more established cricket farms have been supplying for so long, we assume they haven't been taking the proper measures to combat inbreeding. So what we've done is sourced from a handful, and then mixed them in the bin together so they breed outside of the lineage that they've been stuck in for so long. It creates a healthier cricket, reduces the potential for birth defects down the line, and they're a lot bigger in size. It's just an all-around higher quality cricket.
How many crickets do you currently have?
Mermel: On the farm we have about 250,000 crickets right now. In the next week or so we'll probably be ordering more, and we'll have about 300,000 crickets. That should get up to about 2 million in a few months. They multiply like crazy.
How do people respond when you tell them what you're doing?
Mermel: It starts with a "What the hell are you talking about," slash "You're messing with me," slash "That's disgusting." And about five minutes later it turns into, "That makes a lot of sense, that's a good idea." A lot of people get it right at the very beginning, and they're familiar with the concept, so it doesn't take that much to convince them. But just like with anything you're going to get people that are against it for no logical reason and therefore impossible to convince, but those people, we're disregarding. They'll come around eventually.
Why do you think they will?
Mermel: When you see reports, if you look at the actual facts, you realize that there are dire consequences up ahead. It's soon to become an issue where, would you rather starve to death or eat insects? If everything stays on the route we're headed, that is a very realistic situation that we can have, massive die-outs, who knows what. What we know is that the current route we're on, the current food industry is not ample enough to supply the growing population.
What does the cricket powder taste like?
Mermel: The consistency is a fine powder, even more fine that your typical whey protein. It's more similar to kitchen flour in consistency, and similar in that it's easily dissolved into liquid. From a taste perspective, I would say it's close to a roasted almond taste. Very nutty, but a nice, cooked flavor.
Click here to learn more about bugs as a food source for humans, including restaurants in California that serve them.
Want recipes and food news emailed directly to you? Sign up for the new Food newsletter here!