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How to raise a happy cricket

As the first farmer to try large-scale commercial cricket farming in New Zealand, John Hart is learning on the job.

His cricket flour goes into wraps made by Masterton’s Breadcraft bakery, makers of Rebel Bakehouse wraps – runner up in the food category at last week’s NZI Sustainable Business Network Awards.

Marketed as a sustainable and humane protein, the crickets eat waste bread from the bakery and require little energy to farm, shrinking their impact on the planet. But how do you farm a cricket humanely? Eloise Gibson grilled Hart about life on the farm.

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Newsroom: You’re obviously very aware of trying to farm humanely, but what do crickets actually want?

John Hart: I’ve often asked them that! Food and water, pretty much. They coexist in large numbers quite happily, there’s no issue with them being with other crickets. 

They don’t fight, as long as they have plenty of food and plenty of space.

[In nature] they live in a crack in the ground, they come and lay their eggs, they mate when they’re mature, they have temperature and food preferences, and those are all pretty well-known and easy to cater for. The main thing is how you handle them and how you process them at the end of life.

If we’d had this conversation 10 years ago people would say ‘they're just bugs, you farm them, you kill them, we don’t really care.’ But there’s a lot more consumer awareness of the welfare issue now. Yet with mammals we have a lot of behavioural signs we can look at and determine if, say, a cow is happy. Insects are a bit trickier, because they are more binary. They tend to be happy and alive or unhappy and dead. They don’t really tolerate bad conditions.

Describe your cricket farm.

The farm is two 40-foot shipping containers [that] are ridiculously well-insulated. They just have a small heat pump that keeps them warm. And we have fresh air coming in on a timed schedule.

It’s all clean and shiny, it looks like a data centre, but it’s still a natural process going on. No beakers of bubbling chemicals.

The crickets start off their life in reasonably small storage bin sized containers, which we call nursery boxes. When they first hatch, they are just tiny little dots, then they get transferred to large plastic bins, where they spend the rest of their lives. These large boxes are filled with a matrix of egg trays. They like the texture and they love the nooks and crannies so it mimics the natural environment as much as we can, without giving them actual dirt with cracks in it. They come up and get their food and water and then they duck back down again. 

We hatch thousands at a time and we incubate them separately from the parents, because the little ones tend to become food if they are in the same place as the grown-ups.

It’s not a very nurturing, cricket parent-child relationship.

No. At a certain size difference between two crickets, one becomes food. We segregate them by age band, so that way they are all relatively the same size.

Because no-one’s really done this at scale in New Zealand before, and the people who are doing it commercially in other places in the world don’t want really to share their secrets, we’ve basically had to learn as we go.

Are these native crickets?

Yes.

The black field cricket is considered a pasture pest. We’ve been trying to eradicate crickets from pasture for quite a few decades in New Zealand with pesticides and natural predators and biological control and, other than chemical pesticides, we haven’t managed to find any biological agents that kill them, which is quite good if you’re going to farm them, because you don’t want them to accidentally start dying on you.

Your farmer neighbours won’t be happy if you ever leave the door open…

If a million crickets escaped from the farm tomorrow, the surrounding paddocks would probably just absorb them without anyone noticing. There are probably uncountable billions of them in New Zealand as we speak.

How long does a farmed cricket live?

About 7-8 weeks from being laid as an egg to when they are harvested. That’s when they reach maturity [and] they start chirping. It's kind of like a harvest alarm, when we hear them chirping. One day they are going to figure that out and be like “Shhhh, no one say anything, he’s coming past.”

In the wild, they breed once a year and the eggs overwinter in the ground and hatch in the spring when it's moist and warm. But at the farm we keep it moist and warm constantly so they just breed as soon as they reach maturity. All the stuff you do on a beef farm, breeding, care and growing them up, maintenance and then harvesting them – that might happen over a year on a beef farm but it happens over a 6-8 week cycle on the cricket farm.

You dispatch them with nitrogen gas, right?

Yes, it’s very quick and humane. We watch them and they are unconscious within a few seconds and then they are dead within 15-20 minutes.

They have a surprisingly high tolerance for not having oxygen. They can be without it for what - on a human scale - would be certain death, and as soon as they are exposed to air they come back again.

Have you had zombie crickets coming back to life just as they were about to go into a wrap?

Nothing quite that dire. But early on we’d put the nitrogen gas in and think ‘That’s been five minutes, they look like they’re all dead’, and then you open the lid and they start twitching. That was a bit of a learning process.

You keep the boxes of live crickets stacked on top of each other, and there are heaps of them in there. If it was chickens, you’d call it a battery farm. Is that okay for crickets?

I don’t know that you can strictly translate it, but in the law, there are minimum guidelines for space for pigs or chickens or any other animals. If you take that on a purely space basis and scale up the farm, and imagine that the crickets are chicken-sized, they would have more space per animal than chickens in a barn. As to whether that’s enough, the only signal you’ve got is that if they are too crowded and don’t have enough food they resort to cannibalism. That’s the one way we can tell they have enough space – by looking at the numbers of crickets and seeing that they are not overly cannibalising.

Do crickets live together in the wild?

I haven’t seen any evidence that they’re overly social, they seem to be fairly solitary animals, but just because we don’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Crickets may have a lot more to them than we understand. I think you have to err on the side of caution and assume they are more sentient than you think.

What’s it like as a farmer having crickets, compared to cows?

Cows come up for scratches and rub against you and they are warm and fuzzy and they smell kind of nice, and when they make noises it is very endearing.

Crickets as a group are kind of nice, because the chirping is lovely. It’s quite a relaxing sound. This is me overthinking it, but they do get used to you being around. When they’re young, if you loom overtop of the enclosure they all skitter away but as they get older, they’ll walk over your hand if you put your hand in. They’ve probably just learned the weird shape above them doesn’t mean instant death, but it’s nice to think they are getting tame.

You haven’t named any?

No. I’d run out of names pretty quick.

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