Bachhuber Consulting’s response to efforts by Sen Flake & Cortez Masto to prohibit USDA subsidies for insect agriculture
December 17th, 2018
United States Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry
328A Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Dear Senate Agriculture Committee,
I am writing to you today to not only encourage you to block Sen. Flake and Cortez Masto’s attempts to defund insect agriculture, but to implore you to end discrimination against mostly rural specialty farmers by adding insects for human use to the registry of crops, livestock, and farm enterprises eligible for all appropriate USDA programs.
By way of introduction, my name is Kevin Bachhuber. I founded the first human-food grade farm in Youngstown, Ohio in 2014, closed it in 2016 (more on that later), and have transitioned into insect agriculture consulting. I’ve been in countless press pieces, a couple documentaries, and even hosted the first Cuban commercial attaches at my farm in late 2015. I represent American commercial interests in conversations with Southeast Asian Agriculture Ministry representatives and sit on the Food Safety and Regulatory working groups for NACIA (the North American Coalition for Insect Agriculture).
It gives me a unique view of my growing industry. Few people have the opportunity to help as many people start their farms, and the opportunity to go to as many different farms and witness conditions, as I do.
Brief History of American Insect Farming
Insect cultivation in North America has a long and storied history, dating far back before our country’s founding. We’ll fast forward through that.
Cricket farming has been an industry in the US since the 1940s, when T.E. Armstrong, grandfather of our industry’s contemporary elder (Jack Armstrong, Armstrong Cricket Farms, West Monroe, LA) started his first bait farm. It has gone through several large, explosive expansions: in the 1950s, when T.E. began sharing his techniques with others, in the 1970s when freshly enriched petroleum engineers sought new income sources as the energy crisis came to an end; in the late 1980s, when reptiles as pets became popular and pet stores provided a new and unexpected revenue stream; and now, as ever-increasing awareness of the costs of protein and novel bio-engineering offers new frontiers in food, feed, pharma, and materials science.
The Pain of Exclusion
Yet, for some reason, despite their long and important history (no Southern fisherman would consider his bass-fishing complete without a small tube of crickets), insects have long been excluded from the same consideration as their warm-blooded peers by the USDA. As ranking members representing farmers, I hope I can impress on you how harshly this affects my industry.
Denied regular access to the Farm Services Agency, the Farm Bureau, USDA, unrepresented in the definitions that govern crop insurance, farm subsidies, guaranties, or loans, is killing life for their workers. There are already insects in the Specialty Crop Block Grant, USDA risk pools, etc, but they’re all bees.
Conditions are brutal onsite at farms. Like any other type of agriculture, it’s hot, humid, smelly, heavy, and dangerous. Most farms raise their crickets at between 88 and 97 degrees Fahrenheit and at 50-80%+ humidity for some life stages. If you stand very, very still in those conditions with your arms out, and don’t think very hard, you can just about avoid overheating. Twitch a muscle, and the sweat descends. As in many other types of farming, workers can develop allergic reactions and respiratory problems from prolonged contact with airborne waste. Because most of these farms are in the humid rural south, access to food, education, and healthcare afflict workers in their home lives.
Despite this, people keep farming the bugs! I can speak to cricket farming in particular: the chirp and hum of a cricket farm is a rare and soothing thing, especially for the most desperate amongst us. I see violent felons, trauma-scarred refugees and veterans, and downtrodden single moms come into farms in rough shape. Over time, the comfort, the routine, the smells and sounds, combine to create a rare zone of peace.
The farms themselves suffer from under-investment and under-modernization. Fires are common in insect farms; minuscule grain size feeds aerosolize and explode whether they’re for chickens or crickets. We use a lot of paper products, and sometimes they catch on fire. Due to underinvestment in basic research and development, insect farmers use very basic, very labor-intensive practices. And, like any other farm, there are plenty of inherent hazards, especially if you have 140,000 sq ft of rearing rooms and 40 employees. Forklift accidents, tractor disasters, lightning strikes, disease; although the US government will assist other farmers, our industry is excluded, either by intention or inattention.
A sampling of recent disasters:
- This past month, a client’s father tried to commit suicide to get him the money he needs for his farm (the chickens, which have been affected by tariffs, are the root issue, but he couldn’t get any loans from the Farm Service Agency when he tried earlier this year, despite having all the pieces of paperwork correct).
- Bassett Cricket Ranch was torched by enemy action (internal family strife) in November 2018, and they are not eligible for the type of relief that any other farmer would be.
- Hartford Cricket Farm suffered a serious fire earlier last year, and they weren’t subsidy eligible.
- The 2009-2011 Acheta domesticus paralyzation virus (CrPV), a 99.9% fatal cricket virus, resulted in a dozen closures of decades-old, multigenerational farms, and prompted half a dozen others to survive by switching to a new, less favorable, species of crickets, Gryllodes sigillatus. The USDA was unable to offer the type of assistance they do when, for example, Porcine epidemic diarrhea strikes other farms.
The feed and bait side of this industry is ~$300M a year in the US (and growing by leaps and bounds as the reptile pet market explodes in the US), and the edible insects market is up 40% over the last 5 years and above $50M. The largest dozen and a half farms collectively employ over 400 workers. These are rare wages in deplorably difficult, poverty-stricken areas. I think it’s ridiculous that Sen. Flake is targeting us like this, and I’d like your help to fight back.
The Opportunity Cost: Where Flake Goes Wrong
Simply stated: we’re missing out on a massive leap forward in bio-engineering.
Innovation in insects by Kraig Biolabs provides an impressive example. By bio-engineering silkworms to produce modified spider silk, Kraig is able to make bio-organically engineered Kevlar at 1/125th the cost of the traditional yeast and bacterial fermentations. The US military has supported this project extensively, and the company has grown to become a publicly-traded one. Their primary production facilities are in Vietnam.
New antibiotic development is at an all-time low; considering how much insects contend with bacteria and fungi for the same foodstuffs, it’s unsurprising novel antibiotics are being extracted from cockroaches. That research is happening in Brazil. Most cockroach production happens in China.
American cricket farmers, producing human-food grade protein powder, cannot compete with our peers in Thailand. A reasonable price, as Sen Flake noted with a sneer to the press, for US-produced insect protein powder, is around $38/lb. The purchase price from Thailand? $12-18.
I agree with Sen. Flake that the price is too high. Failures by the US government to appropriately fund basic research in micro-livestock agriculture alongside chickens and cows from the New Deal onwards have created this situation. We need to rectify this oversight, and it needs to happen now.
I don’t have the whole solution. Sometimes, the job of a consultant is simply to diagnose the problem, offer a few suggestions, then let the highly qualified people do their thing. So, here’s the impact I would like to see from the solution:
- Funding that provides enough resources to adequately assess which programs need updated definitions to include insects and insect-derived products appropriately.
- Insect agriculture (including but not limited to: crickets, mealworms, black soldier fly, cochineal beetles, superworms, lesser mealworm, chapuline grasshoppers, giant water bugs, dubia and discoid roaches, and other insects with known or suspected commercial uses) defined as a type of farming by the USDA for the purposes of qualifying for below-mentioned programs.
- Substantially easier access to funding and training resources to begin to close the research and commercialization gaps between insect farms and larger livestock.
- A net 40% increase in job creation in my industry between 2019 and 2022 (you do your part and I’ll do mine).
- Insect and insect-derived products tracked by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service alongside other livestock. Better data can help increase investors’ confidence, and it’ll provide a valuable metric by which we can see the direct impact of increased funding and support.
- Support for research of the functional, nutritional benefits of insects in livestock and human diets.
Like any farmer, winter is my slow season. If you’d like to discuss and explore any of these further, I’m happy to connect. It’s easy to set up a call with me at calendly.com/bigcricket.
The Bottom Line
We’re farmers. Please treat us as such.
Programs Available to Other Farmers That Insect Farmers are Excluded From
This is an extremely small sampling of the programs my industry has been unjustly excluded from:
- Farmers Market Promotion Program
- Local Food Promotion Program
- Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program
- Risk Management Education (RME)
- Livestock and Meat Domestic Data
- Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP)
- Livestock Gross Margin (LGM)
- Livestock Risk Protection (LRP)
- Business and Industry Loan Programs*
- SBA Microloan Program*
- USDA Microloan Program*
- USDA Farm Ownership Loan*
- USDA Guaranteed Farm Loan*
- Farm Storage Facility Loan Program
- Direct Emergency Loans
- Specialty Crop Research Initiative
- Beginning Farms and Ranchers Loans
- * Clients have had mixed results accessing due to lack of definitions.