Food Insecurity and Worms, or "Why I'm Awesome:" A Mealworms Thoughts on Existence.
First off, the title is misleading. The humans wrote this. Sorry to break that to you. Anyhoo.
Now that we're growing and expanding (thanks to a Kiva loan!!!), we wanted to tell you all a little bit more about what we're doing and, most importantly, why we're doing it. We're super happy to be selling mealworms to reptile owners, wildlife rescues, and backyard chicken people. But we didn't really start out what that dream in mind. It all started with me wondering if one could live, as it were, on insects and tomatoes alone. But let me back up.
I'm a voracious consumer of all kinds of information, including geopolitical and environmental news. About four or five years ago I began reading a lot of climate news and paying close attention to the rise in fire dangers, drought, and increasing political tensions that can, and will, disrupt international food markets. For decades I've wanted to grow most of our own food, but I started to think more about food security in global way. As a long term gardener, I know how many misconceptions people have about a crumbling food system. It's a nice dream to think if there is a food supply issue you'll suddenly start hunting deer and growing fields of cucumbers. But learning how to actually feed yourself takes decades, and, ultimately, has to be done in community. And that community has to be geographically local. Despite the appeal of suddenly heading "back to the land" (a real problematic historical framing in and of itself; more on that soon), you simply can't live off of a bumper crop of zucchini and summer squash.
If you've read this far, you're probably ready to diagnose me with all manner of anxiety issues, and you'd be right. However, I don't live in a constant state of anxiety. Preparing is how I deal with my anxiety. So, if me talking about food shortage makes you uncomfortable, I'd like to throw out the idea that actually you're already pretty concerned too. You just haven't admitted it to yourself yet, and so me talking about food insecurity triggers your own internal insecurity around how to survive in an increasingly volatile world. So rather than critique my concerns, start thinking about your own worries and make plans to build stronger community. That's some free therapy for you. Back to the essay.
So, over time I started coming across a few things about insect farming and it captured my imagination. After all, people all over the world eat insects on the regular. I recalled the huge market options when I visited Thailand over a decade ago. I thought about locusts and honey in the Bible. And I begin to think about the cattle farms all around our home. We are beyond lucky to have land, but we don't have the kind of acreage it takes to raise cattle. And even if we did, it takes TONS of water to raise chickens or cattle. If you watch the rising land prices and abundant development in our small town area, it's pretty clear very few people will be able to raise cattle in the coming years. The land will either be too expensive or too developed. But everyone needs protein. To make a long story short, I found myself kinda obsessed with the idea that you could grow a whole farm's of protein on some rotting veggies, a tiny amount of water and some humidity in a few drawers that would fit in your desk.
We decided to just start experimenting. We began farming crickets and mealworms in a few tubs in the home office. But the crickets kept dying because we couldn't get the climate control right. One afternoon Bryan came to me, face all serious-like and said, "Look, I think I need to take it once insect at at time. Let's just focus on mealworms." To this day, "I need to take it one insect at a time," is my favorite quote. I'd like to have a whole t-shirt line of this quote. Maybe some day.
So we fed the remaining crickets to our chicken flock and focused in on the mealworms.
It was around this time that we started to discover that mealworms produce a byproduct called frass, which is basically like little golden nuggets of dirt magic. As a tiny flower farmer, this sounded nothing short of amazing. I got obsessed with how large quantities of insect poop could actually make the red clay soil we have here more fertile. And mealworms can take and process veggie compost in a fraction of the time it takes to break it down in a compost bin.
Meanwhile, Bryan was really getting into the details of mealworm breeding. He perfected the substrate that they need to live in. He experimented with levels of humidity and heat. We soon outgrew those three plastic drawers several times over. Then he covered the whole spare bedroom/home office closet with custom made shelves. We started talking about selling mealworms to fancy chicken people in cities. (Our family lives in Portland so I've seen some bougie chicken situations). We began experimenting with drying them. But mostly, we were hobbyists. We didn't really think WE could be the bug farmers. In fact, we even had discussions about investing in insect protein farms until I quickly realized that we didn't have that kind of money. ha.
A friend told us, "maybe you should be the start-up?" We laughed.
During the early stages of the pandemic things really started to shift for us when a friend called to ask us if she could buy some mealworms because they were totally out at the local pet store and her lizard was very hungry. Now this might seem silly now, but at the time we had no idea there was a fairly decent market for live mealworms. We gladly sold her the mealworms and started more research. Turns out, there is a market for mealworms ALL OVER. Wild birders, reptile owners, even pet food companies?!?!
So, to skip over a ton of other little details that I'll try to write about in other posts, that's how we're here now. We sell to reptile and chicken and birders; we sell frass, and soon we'll be expanding into dehydrated options so we can sell dried mealworms. We're not raising them for human consumption...yet. But I will say that we have some grand ideas about locally curated mealworm flavors. Arkansas Black Apple Maple, Spicy Dill, Grandmas pumpkin pie, Elderberry rose…we'll see. But if and when they are used for consumption locally, we'll be ready.
I'd don't want to overstate the abilities of mealworm farm. I read as much historical analysis as I do news, and let me be the first to say that people touted the magic of nuclear power when we first started building plants. The megaworld of mass produced chicken farms was once labeled an excellent idea for the environment, and if you have ever wandered into the GMO debate you can see how things get realllllllly muddy. So, look, if you take this post as me saying mealworms are going to change the world, you're missing *all* the boats. What I am saying is that mealworms have a lot of potential when used wisely. It's anybody's guess as to where that will take us as a nation or world. I'd like to believe they can help with food security. But that will only be true if people raising them keep their eyes on the big picture and think in community-based ways.
So what we can do is grow mealworms while keeping our eyes on the long haul of food security, environmental concerns, small business ethics, and soil revitalization. To my knowledge most mealworm farms are urban based and often grown in large vertical farms. But we're small town and rural. What does that mean for us? So here are just a few questions we're asking ourselves:
- How does insect frass revitalize red clay soil?
- How much protein can be produced for pet food companies in a small, rural mealworm farm?
- Are there certain Arkansas grown veggies that really like mealworm frass? How does rice respond? Sorghum, corn, purple hull peas, okra?
- How can we utilize the naturally humid Arkansas weather to breed mealworms in various climate controlled options?
- Can we start selling our mealworms to pet food companies to help make pet food more affordable and sustainable for all the pet owners out there?
- What questions do you think we should we be asking? We want to hear them!