by Patrick Spencer for the Owen Sound Sun Times
Something unusual is tucked into a 1,300-square-foot unit in the industrial park on the east side of Owen Sound – a cricket farm.
Inside, it’s hot. About 32 degrees Celsius, a comfortable temperature for the thousands of chirping insects living in cardboard boxes and wooden drawers, but perhaps not for Joe Shouldice, the founder and farmer of Yes Crickets.
The heat doesn’t seem to slow down to the 44-year-old father of two, though. Smiling and beaded in sweat, he talks about investing in better insulation to make it even hotter.
“Thirty-five is where I want it,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “It will shorten the cricket’s life cycle, which means more production.”
On the desk beside him sat a steaming pot of coffee, half-empty.
A year ago, the Toronto native uprooted his life as a graphic designer in Brooklyn and moved to Owen Sound with his family to go all in on crickets.
Now, his business is growing and getting some national recognition. Last month, he won the bronze prize from the FedEx Small Business Grant Contest, netting him $5,000. He was one of just 10 businesses to receive the honour, out of more than 2,000 that applied nationwide. People voted for winners through social media.
“I could easily spend $40,000, but the five grand will help me,” Shouldice said with a laugh.
Shouldice farms the crickets from egg to maturity, then processes and sells them as protein powder and crunchy snacks. The dry-roasted insects, which he describes as having the texture of a Rice Krispie, are dusted in potato-chip flavours, like barbecue and lemon pepper and sold in pouches.
A slogan on his business card sums up the grassroots nature of the operation: “We do everything ourselves – from farming, to processing, to packaging.”
But that’s not totally honest. There is no “we” at Yes Crickets. Shouldice is a one-man orchestra.
“I get here at nine, then leave at three,” he said. “Then I often have to come back for two to four hours after the kids have gone to bed.”
Despite this, he says the job still provides more freedom than life as a graphic designer, which he said was “hectic” at best. He would make it home for dinner maybe one night a week.
Becoming a cricket farmer crossed his mind in the early 2000’s, but it wasn’t until a year-long family road trip around the United States in 2017 the dream took shape. Driving down highways, he would joke with his wife about going through with it.
“The next week it was a little less of a joke. The week after that it was ‘Maybe we could actually do that,’” he said.
Near the end of the trip, he spent a day at a cricket farm in the United States learning the trade and making connections with farmers. He also saw encouraging signs in the marketplace: a massive cricket farm in Toronto signed a Canada-wide contract with Loblaws to supply cricket products.
From there, it was just a matter of choosing where to set up his business. He courted Toronto and Brooklyn, but the cost was too steep.
When by chance his family visited Owen Sound, he found a place he could afford. They quickly fell in love with the area.
And by all accounts, Owen Sound has loved them back.
He says he is currently flooded with orders he is struggling to fill. He sells his products on his own website, through Eat Local Grey Bruce and also supplies local restaurants.
A Meaford restaurant even sells a burger made out his crickets.
“I feel like Grey-Bruce has embraced me. There is a real connection with where food comes from here,” he said.
There are challenges, of course. Cost is one; crickets are still pricey for consumers. And he knows he is up against a culture with a “flinch factor.”
“Canadians might think it’s gross to eat crickets, but we’re the weirdos,” said Shouldice.
To combat doubters, he’s memorized a stat from a 2013 study by the UN: 80 per cent of countries depend on insects to feed people. That equates to about 2 billion people.
The same study also suggests eating more insects might be necessary to help avoid ecological disaster and feed a growing global population. It notes that crickets use only two per cent of the water for equal amounts of protein versus cows, 12 per cent of the land and emit one per cent of the methane.
Crickets aren’t a novelty to Shouldice; they are an answer to a growing economic and environmental crisis.
Shouldice said it’s the ethical aspects of the farming process that “tipped the scale” for him.
Farmed crickets live something close to a natural life, and there is nothing like a slaughterhouse awaiting them. “Harvesting” a cricket just means putting it in a freezer. When cold, crickets go into a hibernation state called diapause. Leave them long enough, and they don’t wake up. It’s a painless process, as far as anyone knows.
As for the future, with the $5,000 Shouldice plans to purchase equipment to speed up farming. The goal is to have a space that can manage 1.5 million crickets at one time. Eventually, he hopes to hire an employee.
He said wants to stay small and local, even if it means going up against the increasing number of large-scale operations popping up in Ontario.
“Does a farm this scale survive?” he said. “I’d rather try and fail than not try at all.”