By Phyl Newbeck
It all started when Steve Swanson read a 2013 United Nations report about food insecurity and the need to find new ways to grow food.
“I have two kids,” Swanson said. “When my three-year-old was born, I had to become an adult. I stumbled on this report about edible insects and how they are much more sustainable than other proteins.”
Swanson’s research showed that it takes more than 4,600 gallons of water to raise one pound of edible beef, 1,300 for pork and 943 for chicken, but only 1.25 for crickets.
After reading the report, Swanson and his wife Jennifer decided to start a cricket farm at their Williston home, which they dubbed Tomorrow’s Harvest.
Swanson’s background is in the restaurant business and his wife works in sales; neither one had ever raised animals before. “We started the company before we ever ate a cricket,” Swanson reports, noting that this isn’t a business plan he would recommend to others. The couple spent two years of trial and error on research and development since the few cricket farms they found were very secretive. “I come from a classic Americana household with mac and cheese and TV dinners,” Swanson said, “but I believed in this concept so much that I knew it was what I wanted to do.”
Swanson began raising crickets in his garage and last December. Tomorrow’s Harvest opened for business with two products: cricket powder and whole frozen crickets. At this point, all their sales are online because they don’t have enough product for retail establishments, but Swanson said City Market has expressed an interest in selling the powder if the company increases production. He is currently looking at warehouse space which would enable him to do that.
Swanson said cricket powder (referred to in some circles as cricket flour) is most often used as a protein additive to recipes. It takes on the flavor of whatever it is cooked with, so the Swansons have used it in dishes as diverse as chocolate chip cookies, bread, pasta, smoothies and pesto sauce. Whole crickets are usually deep fried or roasted, but the Swansons like to sauté them. “They crunch like a sunflower seed,” Swanson said, “and they taste like whatever you season them with.” He cautions that those with shellfish allergies may also be allergic to crickets.
Tomorrow’s Harvest’s target audience is members of the fitness industry and environmentalists, but Swanson believes vegans and vegetarians may come to embrace the food because of its sustainability and the humane way in which the crickets are harvested. Crickets have an eight to twelve-week life span. Roughly a week or two before they would die, they are refrigerated which causes them to fall asleep. After that, they are frozen and dehydrated. “It’s a completely painless process,” Swanson said, noting that science is inconclusive on the broader question of whether insects feel pain.
“The beauty of the crickets is you can order a batch online and they breed,” Swanson said. “It takes some trial and error, but you only have to order them once.”
Crickets are cold-blooded and nocturnal and need only food, water and space. Swanson feeds them organic grain, but he is hoping to be able to recycle food waste from local organic farms as cricket food. An additional benefit is that cricket waste can be used as high quality organic fertilizer. Crickets excrete dry pellets known as frass, which, ironically, sells for more per pound than the actual crickets.
Swanson would love to see insect eating become part of mainstream culture and thinks restaurants offering the food would be the best way to legitimize them in the culinary world. He is not advocating that people give up traditional meat, but he would like to see the end of factory farming. “We’re advocates for transitioning those farms into sustainable livestock farms that are pasture-raised and rotated,” he said.
In the meantime, he is happy to preside over the first full-scale cricket farm in Vermont and helping to pave the way for sustainable eating for future generations.