It all started in Andrew Afelskie’s closet.
Last summer, the 30-year-old Ottawa native returned to Canada after teaching English in Japan. He wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to do next, but knew he wanted it to involve farming. Then his friend sent him a link to a UN report highlighting the environmental and nutritional benefits of eating insects. "I was like, this is crazy," Afelskie says. "Why isn’t anyone doing this? And I thought I could try here."
So, he ordered a batch of 10,000 live crickets offline—half male, half female—and had them delivered to his apartment. He put the insects in a giant plastic bin where they’d be warm, gave them water and food, shoved the bin into his closet, and waited. Six weeks later, he had a new generation of crickets. He harvested the first batch and began experimenting with different ways to use them in food. Then he ordered 20,000 more bugs. "My closet is only four-by-four, so it was getting pretty full at that point," he admits.
Then, he received $45,000 in seed financing from nonprofit Futurpreneur to expand. After being turned down by many a squeamish landlord, Afelskie finally moved his cricket farm out of the confines of his closet, and into a 1,200-square-foot startup space. He also gave his operation a name: GrowHop FoodLab. The company’s goal is to make crickets "a household cupboard staple," starting with something called cricket flour, which is exactly what it sounds like: finely ground crickets that can be used in everything from chips to muffins. A company called Exo uses the stuff for its cricket protein bars, and Bitty Foods puts it in cookies.
But there are only four major companies in North America actually raising the crickets these companies need to produce their insect edibles. For example, there's Next Millennium, which sold 60 tons of crickets in 2014, and Big Cricket Farms, in Ohio. But small entrepreneurs like Afelskie want in on this growing industry, too.
America’s largest cricket powder producer, a company called All Things Bugs, sold 10,000 pounds of the stuff in 2014 and was on track to hit 25,000 pounds last year, and demand is only expected to rise. One report projected the edible-insect industry will be worth more than $360 million in a few years. Afelskie says he’s just a few months in and already demand is outpacing his own supply (one local business even wants to use his cricket flour to make ice cream), which is why he’s launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise additional funds to scale the business.
But there are 2,000 species of edible insects out there; why are we starting with crickets, anyway? First of all, they’re packed with protein and nutrients but have a low environmental footprint compared to traditional meat products. It takes about 1,000 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, for example, compared to one gallon of water for one pound of crickets. On top of that, as Bitty Foods puts it, "crickets are a great ‘gateway bug’ for Americans because they are high in nutrition and feel less creepy-crawly than some other insects might." Mealworms, for instance, are also really high in protein and low in environmental impact, but have a higher ick factor thanks to being white and squirmy.
With his Indiegogo campaign, Afelskie hopes to raise enough money to become a completely self-sustaining cricket farm, raising the crickets himself, helping them reproduce, then harvesting the parents for his cricket flour and starting the process over again. He hopes he can create 20 kilos of flour from 200,000 crickets. In the meantime, he and his small team are experimenting with other products, like chips and granola. "Our ultimate vision," the campaign says, "as crazy is it sounds, is that crickets will be a staple like eggs or milk."