If you can get past the chirping and hopping, crickets are a relatively low-maintenance addition to any homestead. Not only will your chickens appreciate the homegrown feed, but crickets are a nutritious, low-impact protein source for adventurous humans as well.
To get started with your own cricket farm, all you need is a container to prevent your crickets from hopping all over the house. An aquarium with a tight-fitting cover will work, but so will a high-sided Rubbermaid bin (crickets will eat through cardboard) with a mesh top or a slick taped-lined rim to prevent escapees. Fill the container with a substrate like sand or vermiculite and stack a few cardboard egg cartons so the crickets will have a place to hide. Keep a separate tray of topsoil on one side of the container for the eggs.
They also need water but are prone to drowning. A sponge or wicking cloth in a shallow trough will make it so the crickets can drink without meeting a watery end.
Once the ideal cricket conditions are in place, the container can essentially be put anywhere it will fit. Crickets require warm, humid environments — a consistent 85 degrees with humidity about 50 percent is ideal — so set up the space where you plan to keep their bin with heat lamps and humidifiers to keep them comfortable.
“[Crickets] are incredibly space efficient,” said Robert Nathan Allen, president and founder of Little Herds, an nonprofit dedicated to educating the public about edible insects. “You can farm crickets in a bin in your closet, shed or garage, or you can create a micro-ranch in something like a shipping container or a small building.”
The ideal number of crickets for your farm will depend on the space available, so Allen suggests starting with a couple thousand and going a personal process of trial and error. “The great thing about insects like crickets is that they have a short life cycle,” he says. “Within a month and a half you’re going to have the next generation.”
You can purchase cricket eggs or full-grown adults either online or from a pet store. Eggs look like grains of rice poking out of the soil and usually hatch within seven to 10 days. Once they are laid, the tray with the eggs should be removed from the general population so hungry adults don’t eat their young. “Pinheads,” or adolescent crickets, should be kept in a separate, slightly more humid container (90 percent humidity is optimal) with high-protein food like tofu or chicken until they resemble full-grown bugs.
When it comes to food in general, adult crickets aren’t picky. They are naturally omnivorous, so most grains, vegetables, and fruits are acceptable (though Allen suggests avoiding citrus). Even chicken feed will satiate hungry bugs. For cricket farmers that plan to consume their livestock, experimenting with feed will influence the flavor of the bugs. “If they are eating mint or basil or rosemary, they’re going to have a little bit inside of them still,” Allen said. “You can really influence the flavor of the insect from what you’re feeding it.”
If you do plan to experiment with cricket cuisine, simply shake live crickets out of the egg cartons into a bag and put them in the freezer for a day or so (the cold temperatures will put them into a sleep-like state until they eventually die) before thawing and roasting them. “Once they are roasted, you can either flavor them or you can turn them into powder, which is the most popular because it doesn’t look like an insect,” says Bill Broadbent, president of Entosense, Inc., a company based in Lewiston, Maine, that manufactures and sells edible insect products.
Broadbent admits that there is still a stigma around eating bugs, but with the growing global population increasing the demand for protein, low-impact crickets could be a smart and ethical alternative to meat. “[Crickets] go through live their entire natural lives, and they similar to meat they have all of the essential amino acids,” he explains. “We have a lot of vegetarians that buy crickets from us.”