MOORHEAD, Minn. — Madeline and Pat Revier are raising hops.
No, we're not talking about the flowers used to flavor craft beer. The Reviers are cricket farmers, raising crickets to be made into a high-protein, nutrient-packed flour that is coveted by everyone from high-performance athletes and people with gluten allergies to eco-conscious vegans.
The Reviers may be trailblazers in raising this type of livestock (or, maybe, livehops?) in the Fargo-Moorhead area. Revier Family Farms operates out of a meticulously clean storage garage in a Moorhead industrial park, where their chirpy fleet eats, drinks and makes more crickets inside 50-gallon plastic totes, stacked on very tall wooden shelves. The couple would like to build their brood to 3 million crickets, in the hopes of milling and selling large amounts of cricket flour for baking, smoothies and cooking all over the country.
"I don't want to come off as some sort of global green nut," says Madeline Bailey Revier, an accountant by training. "I love steak."
However, when she first started researching the feasibility of cricket farming, she was appalled to learn the amount of energy and resources it takes to produce a pound of beef.
The couple's research showed they could join a growing trend of raising insects for food. While the practice of raising crickets for human consumption is still pretty novel in the U.S., people throughout the world regularly consume insects as a widely available, cheap and nutritious protein source. Some Asian countries view certain insects as a delicacy. The Reviers point to a French chocolatier whose signature confection is a fine chocolate topped with a single cricket, enrobed in gold leaf.
Even so, ask the average person on the street if they'd like a nice chocolate ”chirp” cookie and you’ll hear ... crickets. But Pat likens American squeamishness to insect-based foods to other foods that were once unfamiliar to us, including sushi. Forty years ago, many Americans couldn't imagine eating raw fish, but now sushi bars are considered, well, completely cricket, he says.
Besides, they say, crickets are among the tastiest to eat, which is why some entovegans (vegans who eat insect protein) call them a “gateway bug.”
So what do they taste like? Most cricketphiles say they have an earthy, pleasantly nutty flavor, which lends itself well to sweet or savory dishes.
A leap of faith
Their leap into cricket-farming happened a few years ago.
Although Pat likes his job as facilities manager with the New Life Center in Fargo, he had started realizing how much he missed farm life. He grew up on his family's dairy farm near Waubun, Minn., but the operation had to be sold in 2010 after his dad got sick.
One day, he stumbled across information online about cricket farming. It was a long way from owning cattle, but it would allow him to raise an in-demand protein source without needing lots of land and bottomless resources.
"I didn't tell (Madeline) for a year, because I wanted to make sure it was legit," he says today.
When Pat finally shared his idea, Madeline wasn't hopping mad. She laughed, thinking it was a little unusual, then proceeded to do her own deep dive to explore the merits of cricket-farming. Like her husband, the more she explored, the more she liked what she found.
One of the biggest benefits to cricket farming is it's eco-friendliness. Tammy Mann, founder of Harmony Cricket Farm cookies, protein powders and flours in Minneapolis, estimates that raising crickets over beef uses 95 times less land and 2,000 times less water while producing a miniscule amount of greenhouse-gas emissions when compared to beef.
Crickets need 12 times less feed than cattle to produce the same amount of protein, according to a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
The Acheta domesticus also contains a hopper-full of protein and amino acids. By weight, it contains more iron than spinach, more Omega-3s than salmon and more calcium than milk, Madeline says. The exoskeleton also contains a prebiotic that can promote gut health.
All these factors have contributed to the cricket’s cachet as a superfood, making the jaunty Jiminy a coveted ingredient in everything from snack chips and protein powders to breakfast bars and dog kibble.
Mann, a triathlete who owned a Minneapolis creative agency before starting Harmony Cricket, had learned early on she couldn’t tolerate the gluten needed to carbo-load for her intense workouts. She also found the dairy in protein powders caused stomach problems.
When she started incorporating cricket powder into her smoothies, “it was game-changing,” she says. “My gut health issues went away. I wasn’t hungry an hour into a workout like I usually was. I was getting leaner. Yet the only thing that I had changed was my protein powder.”
The global edible-insect market is growing at a rate of 23% per year, according to Meticulous Research, and Forbes has predicted millennials may be especially open to the trend, as they tend to value adventurous dining and more sustainably raised alternatives to meat.
If the thought of cricket-consumption still turns your stomach, keep in mind the insects' other uses. They can be used to boost protein levels in cattle feed and their waste creates a rich fertilizer that is more sustainable and eco-friendly than fish emulsion, the Reviers say.
‘Two crickets to paradise’
Revier Family Farms raises an American blend of the European household cricket (Acheta domesticus), which is brown and smaller than the shiny, black crickets we find in our basements.
After a couple of shipments in which the North Dakota cold proved too treacherous for cricket-travel, Madeline is now awaiting crickets from a Florida-based supplier. Even so, the hardiest survivors from their first shipments have already grown their brood to tens of thousands of crickets.
Crickets, it turns out, like a lot of things that humans do. They thrive in the same temperatures that we find comfortable. They need to socialize: in fact, if their living conditions aren’t densely populated enough, some die. But they also need alone time, which is when they retreat to their egg-carton condos to relax and perhaps watch Netcrix.
If they’re feeling romantic, they will chirp — that’s the entomological equivalent to Tinder — to attract a mate. After that, it’s two crickets to paradise, which results in the female laying 100 eggs, it's hoped.
Madeline admits the storage garage gets pretty noisy with so many leaping Lotharios about. “I like the sound,” she says. “That means they’re happy and they’re making babies.”
Chirps aren’t cheap
The crickets’ prodigious egg production keeps Madeline plenty busy as she rotates containers of babies, all separated by day of birth, from incubator to various cricket cribs. “I use lots of color-coding and notes,” Madeline says, laughing. “I think of it as a giant science experiment.”
It’s also her job to keep everyone watered and fed. Crickets are into keto big-time: They need protein, or they'll resort to eating their neighbors. "Then we'll just have one great big, fat, happy cricket," Madeline jokes.
She worked for months researching the perfect diet to provide maximum nutrition for the most efficient cost. Noreen Thomas of Doubting Thomas Farms supplies the crickets with organic soy, organic wheat and organic corn, which the Reviers supplement with milk powder, bone meal, blood meal and organic brewer’s yeast. Madeline hopes to eventually transition to screenings and spent grains that still contain ample nutrition but would otherwise be thrown away.
When the crickets are about 45 days old — qualifying as “young adults” — they will be harvested. “If you harvest the older ones, it’s just like an old cow, it does not taste as good,” Madeline says.
This is accomplished by refrigerating the young crickets, which puts them in hibernation, then transferring them to a freezer for a painless euthanization.
From there, the bugs are triple-rinsed, then blanched to kill any microbes. They are baked in a combination microwave-dehydrator, then milled three times to create an off-white flour that, when packaged, resembles almond flour.
The extra milling helps ensure no pesky legs or wings wind up in the mix, Madeline says. Although these extremities are just extra fiber, they may be a little too, well, cricketty for the novice insect-baker.
The Reviers say they’ve been helped enormously by the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, which has guided them with regulations, nutrition labels and packaging. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have had the first idea where to start,” Madeline says.
Their next steps will be to connect with markets to ensure their flour is available to bigger suppliers who need a wholesale source as well as direct sales to consumers, if possible. They hope to partner with people like Mann, who quit her job and dipped into her retirement to create Harmony Cricket's surprisingly tasty line of butterscotch cookies, chocolate chip cookies, protein powders and flour.
“My mission is to change American's perception of insects as food,” says Mann. "But we will never grow this trend if product doesn't taste good. I was willing to plug my nose and do it, but not a lot of people are willing to do that.”
When assessing the process needed to make cricket products, it’s understandable why these flours retail for as much as $40/pound. But the Reviers say bakers will use cricket flour more sparingly than wheat flour: As it doesn’t contain gluten, only about one-fourth of the flour required in a recipe can be replaced with cricket. Madeline also hopes her vigilance with efficient feeding formulas and the bottom line will help them create a more affordable flour.
“There isn’t much of a point in having a wonderful food if no one can afford to buy it,” she says.
Follow Revier Family Farms at www.facebook.com/revierfamilyfarms.