Ames woman hopes her crickets could supply your next meal

AMES, Iowa (AP) — The tiny crickets Shelby Smith raises for her company, Gym-N-Eat Crickets, aren’t going to solve the big problem of climate change.

But to produce the same amount of protein, crickets take six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep and half what is needed for hogs and broiler chickens, according to a study published in 2021 in the peer-reviewed journal Nutrients.

“I like to frame it as another healthy option,” said Smith, 32, of Ames. “It’s better to have another source of protein that takes less resources.”

Smith, a Waterloo West graduate who played basketball at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, founded Gym-N-Eat Crickets in 2018 after deciding she didn’t enjoy working as an equity derivatives trader for a Canadian bank in Dublin, Ireland. She came home, back to her parents’ farm near Ames, to regroup.

“Eating bugs came up on three different podcasts,” Smith told the Cedar Rapids Gazette. She started reading everything she could about cricket farming and pitched the idea to her parents, who were supportive.

Smith raised her first 10,000 crickets in the break room of her father’s shop on farm. The room was insulated and could be heated up to the necessary 85 degrees to promote cricket development.

“I learned the basics of cricket farming off reptile owners on YouTube,” Smith said.

Because live crickets can cost 15 cents apiece at a pet store, many reptile owners raise their own crickets for feed, she said. But a snake owner in Florida will have a different set of variables from a cricket breeder in Iowa.

“It’s always a work in progress,” Smith said. “Think of raising crickets as any livestock back in the 1950s. There are a lot of things to improve and make more efficient.”

Smith now raises common house crickets in what used to be a single-wide trailer surrounded by cornfields. Plastic tubs serve as cricket neighborhoods, while egg flats inside the tubs are like apartment blocks.

At about three weeks into a cricket’s life cycle, Smith puts out breeding trays filled with peat moss, which is where the female crickets will lay up to 100 eggs per day. Smith feeds her herd an organic, non-GMO grain mix from BioForge Labs in Huxley, just south of Ames.

“Conventionally-grown grains have too much pesticide,” she said.

Before the eggs hatch, Smith harvests the mature crickets, killing them off in the freezer. She processes the insects at a facility in Collins, southeast of Ames, making cricket powder, cricket bars and dry-roasted crickets in flavors including Fiesta, Smokey BBQ and Dill Pickle.

In addition to direct sales, Gym-N-Eat Crickets are sold at about 100 Hy-Vee stores as well as at specialty stores like New Pioneer Coop, which has locations in the Corridor; Campbell’s Nutrition, in Des Moines; and Wheatsfield Coop, in Ames.

The company logo shows a smiling cricket lifting a barbell. Smith, the former basketball player, originally thought her product would appeal to athletes who wanted a quick burst of lean protein and fiber. But she’s discovered most of her customers are young- to middle-age moms.

“Women are the more adventurous eaters,” she said.

Smith spends a good share of her time doing interviews and speaking to groups about edible insects. When the pandemic struck in 2020, she turned to YouTube, making videos about raising the small, chirping creatures.

Her YouTube channel, @therealcricketlady, has 2,700 subscribers and started bringing in a small amount of advertising revenue in 2021, she said. She’s also started filming on TikTok, which she sees as a good way to reach younger customers.

But some publicity comes with challenges.

In October, Hy-Vee’s Johnson Avenue store in Cedar Rapids posted on Facebook about stocking some Gym-N-Eat Crickets.

The post now has 6,500 comments and 4,300 shares, with many of those coming from people who saw the post as evidence of an unfounded conspiracy theory that climate change-minded liberals are forcing people to eat bugs.

There also were concerns about chitin, a sugar molecule found in the exoskeleton of crickets as well as in shellfish, mushrooms and some other foods.

Some people are allergic to chitin and scientists are studying the role it plays in the body. A 2022 article in the peer-reviewed journal Marine Drugs looks at how chitin activates cells that can cause a worse prognosis in some cancers, but inhibit cancer cells or increase survivability in other cancers.

Smith takes the questions in stride, both online and when she sells her products at farmers markets.

“My favorite response is that I’ve been doing this since before it was cool to be mad about it,” she said.

Gym-N-Eat Crickets is poised for expansion. Smith and her boyfriend, Willie Beeler, bought an 140-year old building in Collins they plan to renovate into a distribution center and a home base for Beeler’s lawn care business. The Iowa Economic Development Authority awarded Collins $100,000 toward the project.

Smith also is working with a Canadian production company to develop a docuseries about cricket farming that will air on the new Bloomberg Green platform, she said.

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