From grain malting to cheese production, farmers and ranchers in Montana are finding new ways to add value to their raw products. And for one farm in Belgrade, that raw product chirps. Cowboy Cricket Farms is one of twenty operations that received a state grant earlier this year to scale up and break into new markets.
In a facility near the Bozeman International Airport, James Rolin checks bins of juvenile and adult crickets. He started Cowboy Cricket Farms with his wife in 2017 as a way to provide a sustainable, alternative protein source. They sell whole roasted crickets, cricket protein powder and cookies made with cricket flour online and in some local retail shops.
Rolin carefully picks up a piece of packed soil and points out a layer of eggs. They look like tiny grains of rice.
“When the females lay them, they’re about a quarter inch or below the surface. You get this nice layer of eggs," says Rolin. "You can get about 50,000 or 60,000 eggs in one of these nine inch pans.”
Crickets grow to adult size in about two months. Pound per pound, crickets pack a lot of protein, iron and omega-3 without using as much water or land as cattle.
Earlier this year, the Growth Through Agriculture program awarded 20 Montana producers about $500,000 in grants. The state program is intended to “strengthen and diversify Montana’s agricultural industry through development of new agricultural products and processes.” This is the second year Cowboy Cricket Farms has received the grant to purchase cricket processing equipment.
While eating insects is common in a lot of countries around the world, it’s still taboo for many Americans. Cowboy Cricket Farms recognized early on that consumers here are more likely to eat a cookie made with cricket flour than the whole insect. The Chocolate Chirp Cookies are their largest income producing product.
“I know I’ve got one order waiting tomorrow for about 725 cookies on top of our regular sales so we probably sell anywhere from about 1-7,000 cookies a week,” says Rolin.
Right now, Rolin says it can take 8-12 minutes to dole out cookie dough on a baking tray. But with the new machinery they’ve purchased with the grant, the same job only takes six seconds.
"So that means we can start putting out a tremendously larger amount of cookies, which has been a big hold-up for us because if we can’t make more product, I can’t sell more product. We’re already pushing the limits of what we can do right now,” Rolin says.
As demand for their products has increased, Cowboy Cricket Farms has brought in six partner farms in Montana, plus two in other states. They’re in the process of partnering with three farms in Canada and about a dozen in Mexico as well. Through the partnership, Cowboy Cricket Farms provides training, breeding stock and research on everything from the best kind of feed to better growing containers. The partners in the US provide the frozen crickets.
Rolin walks across the commercial kitchen to the freezer and opens the door.
“We actually harvest the crickets by freezing. It’s part of their natural life cycle and so it’s very humane. Usually what would happen going in fall and winter, they go underground; they go into stasis,” he says.
It’s like a state of hibernation. Once frozen, Cowboy Cricket Farms can then process the crickets and package the snacks in their commercial kitchen and sell under their label.
Rolin pulls out a tray of frozen crickets, explaining, “So this is a small batch of crickets. Usually our farmers bring in 50 to 500 pounds at a time. This is like three pounds of crickets, but we’re using this for a class to show kind of what not to do.”
He says they want to break into non-food markets as well. They’ve started selling the cricket excrement — or frass — as fertilizer to gardeners and medical marijuana producers.
“I think there’s a huge potential for the frass. We actually create a few times more pounds of frass than we do crickets so finding a market for it is extremely important,” Rolin says.
The frass contains high levels of Nitrogen and iron, and it creates an autoimmune response in certain plants. The presence of little bits of cricket material in the frass causes the plants to think they’re under attack. They start producing special chemical compounds to defend themselves, which means stronger smells and flavors in plants like basil and tomatoes. For medical marijuana plants, it means more THC.
Value-added agriculture in Montana generated about $9 million in 2017, according to the most recent Census of Agriculture. Other Growth Through Agriculture grant recipients range from winemakers to sheep milk and cheese producers.