Good news first? That’s a reasonable feeling to have right now, and you’re not crazy. Good job! And for the middling-to-sketchy brief: If you haven’t already, it’s probably time to wave goodbye to the comfortable status quo. Our nightmare pandemic aside, denying climate change is no longer an option; raging fires, flooding in myriad forms, and a scramble for resources necessary to farm on an ever increasing scale (to name a few) will beget food and usable land shortages.
While we gallop ever closer toward that future, it seemed prudent to call up a pair of visionaries who’ve been bringing a more sustainable option within our reach—if we’re willing to rise to it and crunch down on it: Claire and Chad Simons, the wife-and-husband co-owners of 3 Cricketeers, Minnesota’s first farm raising crickets for human consumption.
Forming a multimillion-head herd of crickets was an idea that Chad (who’d studied environmental law) pitched Claire (a maternity ward nurse) on one of those late nights while she was watching Netflix. He touted the very real benefits from a sustainability standpoint, that they use a fraction of the feed, water, and land of traditional livestock farms.
Claire’s passion for nutrition latched onto the benefits of the product they ended up raising in their basement in the beginning. Crickets pack twice as much protein as beef, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach, and promote gut health via prebiotic fiber. About a year ago, backed by research from Purdue, the Simonses even discovered their flock’s promising abilities to address diabetes and hypertension.
Their experiment has long since expanded beyond their basement, and now encompasses a 3,500-square-foot “urban farm” in St. Louis Park. They employ a farm manager, wrangle interns, and make use of an industrial kitchen to churn out USDA-certified direct-to-market products like cricket cookies or roasted and flavored snack bags of the nutrient-dense hoppers.
“We hit poultry-grade standards, which is probably overkill,” says Chad.
For the duration of their six-week lifespan, the crickets (of the tropical banded variety) are fed a mixture of finely ground 100 percent organic chicken feed, spent grain from La Doña Cerveceria, and clippings from neighboring SLP Seeds.
When it’s time for them to exit this plane, each batch of 80,000 is put into a big freezer Chad jokingly calls the Iron Maiden, where they begin to zonk out at 50 degrees for the long goodnight.
“When we’re able to go to a farmers market and really talk to people and have them try it and say, ‘Okay, this is a cookie. You can’t even taste it,’ then that’s really easy,” says Claire. She attributes the increase in both interest and sales to, basically, the pandemic, which has given their would-be customer base time to educate themselves on what they’ve been saying all along: Crickets are a superfood, and you could slip them into baked goods without anyone being the wiser.
“Before, when we would talk about what we did—I mean, really people would just say, ‘Gross. Why? Just eat a hamburger.’ And now it is really different with everybody baking, too,” she says.
“There really is a market for this. Interest in the last year compared to the three before has exponentially grown,” says Chad. He references Seattle Mariners fans so taken with a Safeco Field vendor’s chili lime grasshoppers in the first three games of the 2019 MLB season that a per-game cap had to be instituted.
Like so many other secrets most of the world is in on—health care that serves its populace, paid maternity leave, a leader who speaks in full sentences and heeds the advice of scientists—the contemporary American monolith is behind the times when it comes to incorporating these eminently sustainable, super snackable insects into our diet.
Enter chef Gustavo Romero, most recently of northeast Minneapolis’s Nixta Tortilleria, whom Claire is quick to credit with “teaching us what a cricket should taste like.” The Cricketeers and Romero found their interests aligned after a coursed Pre Hispanic Insect Dinner hosted at Costa Blanca Bistro got everyone talking about their passions.
For Romero, offering his expertise was a collision of his upbringing and culinary training.
Moving to the United States from Mexico as a 17-year-old ended what had been the “totally natural” part of his diet up until that point, “because it wasn’t something that was normal here.” Then culinary school instilled him with a dedication to sustainability, similar to Chad’s focus.
“If we keep doing things the way that we’re doing, eventually there’s not gonna be space, so we’re not gonna be able to do it, or we’re gonna have to put so many hormones into these animals so we can supply everybody,” he says.
So Romero ended up guiding the Minnesotans. “We realized that there was something missing, so we started working on the process while [the crickets] were growing,” he says. “We changed their diet, and now we have a product that is very… it’s like a blank canvas, right?” What’s left of the little guys now is tons of nutrients, big cronch, and whatever flavor is designed to go on top; nothing more.
Though he sometimes offers insects on the sly (on the side) at Nixta, the chef has been working on an idea for how to incorporate 3 Cricketeers into the restaurant’s next phase: cricket tortillas.
“I talked to a lot of people that exercise a lot and they’re always looking for, like, a protein boost for workouts. They’re super excited because they’re like, ‘Sometimes we just want normal food!’ And I think that’s what people need. A lot of times people go really far away from what food is to be able to get protein,” says Romero.
“It’s really cool,” the chef gushes. “We just need to be careful, because if we put in a lot, it will become a very expensive product, and we still want to have something that is accessible.”
Until that time, if you’ve caught the cricket bug (sorry), pouches of 3 Cricketeers’ protein powders, cookies, and packs of the crunchy guys themselves (in flavors like curry, BBQ, and chili lime) are available for purchase online through the farm, as well as at the Linden Hills farmers market and Munkabeans in Hopkins.
Your kitchen awaits your next baking project—and it’s shaping up to be a long winter, ripe for experimentation.