Under the flight approach at Bozeman Yellowstone Airport in Belgrade, there’s another winged specimen found at Cowboy Cricket Farms. Here high octane protein products are being produced from Acheta domesticus or the common house cricket by James and Kathy Rolin, the founders and owners of a business that they advertise “brings bugs to the world in fun and exciting ways.”
The company started in 2016 with the Cowboy Chirp Cookie, a chocolate chip cookie made with their own cricket powder. They then ventured into selling snacks of whole crickets in flavors of smoke, cinnamon, wasabi, and original.
The idea for the company came from Kathy while she was attending Montana State University as a nutrition student. According to her husband, James, the marketing manager, he credited his wife crossing paths with Dr. Florence Dunkel. Flavors Under the Big Sky visited with Dr. Dunkel and participated in the 2nd Annual Bug Cookoff last year.
James shared, “Dr Dunkel really is one of the absolute leaders in this industry. Without her we wouldn’t have a company. Without her we would not have found out about this. She is an absolutely an amazing person and has done a lot for edible insects and many other sectors in agriculture.”
When Kathy approached James with the idea of opening a cricket farm, he said, “No, this is a horrible, horrible idea. We’re not doing this, but as usual she was right, I was wrong and so 2 ½ years later here we are.”
As the parents to Elise, age 9, Olive, 7, and Liam, 5 the Rolins wanted to develop a product that was approachable and tasty. With James’ description of a cricket tasting like “a potato chip and a sunflower seed,” the taste may sound appealing, but most Americans are reluctant when it comes to eating insects.
A quarter of the world eats insects. Crickets are high in protein containing all the essential amino acids. They have omega-3 and-6 fatty acids and are high in calcium and vitamin B12. Though big on nutrition, they are small on ecological footprint, taking up less space, requiring less food and water than any other animal protein.
Recently Cowboy Cricket Farms started outsourcing their cricket production. Though they started the company by raising their own insects, they now have more than half a dozen independent farms located in Montana and surrounds that are partnering with them.
The Rolins started a comprehensive and an eight-part free tutorial on How to Farm Crickets on YouTube. At their facility they offer weeklong and one-day courses. At these classes, partner farmers are trained and recruited for their Partner Farmer Program. This way, the Rolins know that their supply product is being raised to their standards.
The farmers ship crickets to Cowboy Cricket Farms in a frozen state and are stored in a 10-by-10-by-8-foot freezer until they are dehydrated. They are dehydrated for 8 to 10 hours, James said, “We cook them low and slow. Most of our competitors bring them up to 400 degrees for 30 minutes or so. By dehydrating them, we can keep the nutrition levels really high and we can keep up the flavor up there as well as the texture. So instead of falling apart in your mouth like dust it is more like eating a potato chip. They have a nice crisp to them.”
After the crickets are dehydrated at around 165 degrees F., they are flavored or milled into a powder. “We can run about 600 pounds of powder a day to capacity though usually we don’t have that much to process on any given day,” James shared.
When the kitchen is not being used for their production, the Rolins rent out their kitchen space. “We’ve been able to give other food entrepreneurs in the area an opportunity to build and grow their businesses by using our facilities,” James said.
The Cowboy Chirp Cookie is Cowboy Cricket Farms’ gentle introduction to eating insects. James said, “We found that if we give someone a whole roasted cricket, they probably won’t eat it. We give them the powder, they don’t know what to do with it, but if you give them a delicious Chocolate Chirp Cookie, it all makes sense. People love chocolate chip cookies.”
In the two-story building with the kitchen and production area found on the lower level, the upstairs houses the office and the research facility. In an approximately 400-square-foot room, the research area was lit comfortably with fluorescent lights and warmed to a perfect tropical island temperature. In the room several low columns of lidded plastic storage totes housing crickets are stacked on top of each other with stainless tables providing work areas.
When we stepped into the room, it went silent. The few chirps that reverberated in the room ceased. But then a few seconds later, one chirp followed with several chirps resounded. The only protection crickets have is remaining still and being quiet as they do not bite or sting. There is a slight “animal odor,” one that I am familiar with when I near a hamster or guinea pig.
“What you typically see is a vertical setup, the higher you go, the less land you need,” James explained. In each container, there are egg cartons which provide separate spaces for the crickets to live, almost like small condo units. Cellulose sponges absorb the water that the crickets drink from. By keeping the water contained, it prevents baby crickets from drowning. Small trays hold food for the crickets while the frass or what James call “cricket poop” falls to the on the bottom of the container.
A cricket will lay about 14 eggs a day and the babies emerge as tiny crickets and do not present as a pupa. James explained, “They just keep getting bigger and bigger. Over the course of their life span, in 7 to 8 weeks, they shed several times,” going through the growth stages called instars with wings forming in the final stage. Only the males chirp. The females are larger in size and develop an ovipositor, a tubular organ which allows for laying eggs.
Rolin sells the frass as fertilizer and said, “Not only does it have decent NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium) value for plants, but more importantly, it increases secondary metabolism which means your tomatoes get more flavor and your basil smells better.”
For Cowboy Cricket Farms, “better” may be their mode of operation as they continue to grow and continue to educate the world about the benefits of bugs, especially eating them.