thousands of crickets

If you have a frog or a lizard, you've probably bought live crickets for it to eat. But did you ever think about the story behind them? It turns out to be more dramatic than you'd expect.

In 2009, one of the largest companies, Ghann's Cricket Farm, was producing 200 million crickets a year and employing almost 50 people. After being in business for more than 50 years, they pretty much had it down to a science. What could go wrong? But then they — and the rest of the industry — were nearly wiped out by a virus.

The Beginning

Clay Ghann's father loved to fish. So when he wanted to start his own business in 1952, he had the idea to sell crickets as bait. He designed a wooden box specially for shops to store them in, and he drove around the eastern half of the country, stopping in small towns and looking up the local bait shop.

"The first few years were quite lean," Ghann says. "He always said if he hadn't had a good patch of collard greens those first few years, he wouldn't have made it."

Ghann didn't expect to follow in his father's footsteps. He helped out as a kid, but, he says, "I saw how hard Daddy worked and said, 'I don't want to work that hard.'"

When he changed his mind and bought the company in 1987, it wasn't because he had a big inspiration to expand into the pet industry. "The pet customers found us," he says — and, at first, he actually turned them away.

"We had one product — a box of adult crickets, 1,000 per box," he says. "That's what we sold, period, nothing else." So when he started to get phone calls from people who wanted only 500 or who were looking for crickets only half-grown, he gave them the phone number of a buddy who was dabbling in crickets for the pet industry.

"I still did not think it was worthwhile. I'd hang up the phone laughing, thinking I was pestering him," he says. "Then I realized I was giving a lot of people Jack Armstrong's phone number."

Ghann decided to get into the pet business, and in just five years, sales had doubled. "It took off from there," he says, till their business was 99 percent pet feeding instead of bait.

The Crash

boxes of crickets being raised

In the 2000s, concern was growing about a cricket disease that had wiped out breeders in Europe. Ghann started a trade group to study the problem, and not a minute too soon — in 2009 the disease showed up in North America.

"People went from producing 3 to 4 million a week to producing less than 100,000 in six weeks — that fast, it would wipe them out," he says.

And by mid-2010, the disease had reached Ghann's. "We lasted longer than most people had," he says. But in October they shut down, did a massive cleanup and started over, to no avail: "Everything looked good for about four months maybe, and then we saw the virus again."

They had no choice but to try a new species of cricket, but this meant applying for a USDA permit. The process took about nine months — and that was fast. "The USDA initially told us it would take two to three years," he says. "I kept pushing till I found the right person — put my marketing skill or my big mouth to work — and got him on board."

The species looked good at first but proved impossible to produce in adequate numbers. Fortunately they got permits for yet another species, the banded cricket, in only three months. "If we hadn't, we might not have made it," Ghann says. "We were living off our savings. Our last paycheck was October 2010. Up till March of this year, I didn't get a paycheck."

In the meantime, though, some companies were producing an unauthorized species — and they were calling it by the same name. This was a problem because customers were complaining that the cricket not only bit people but also sometimes even killed their animals. "Everyone was saying, 'It's attacking everybody,'" he says.

In order to reassure customers, Ghann and his colleagues needed to prove that crickets that acted that way were not banded crickets. So some of the crickets Ghann took to calling the "crazy red" were submitted to scientists to identify. "They came back and said this cricket does not match any species known to exist in the U.S. or Mexico," he says. One of the entomologists eventually wrote a paper describing the unknown species and gave it the scientific name Gryllus locorojo after Ghann's nickname for it.

Back in Business

Ghann started with 50 banded crickets from an approved, properly identified colony from a university. It took about nine months to get up to a consistent production of 3 million crickets a week, which is where they are now. They sell different sizes to feed animals of different sizes, but they're all the same cricket at different life stages, so the one species is all they need.

"It's not immune to the virus. It can become infected but seems to be not affected," he says. "Now we're looking at perhaps opening up another of our production rooms. We've been trying to operate on a little smaller scale intentionally because honestly I'm still a little gun shy."

But the new cricket seems to be doing well, and, most important, the customers approve. "It's a lively cricket," he says. "The animals have taken to it fine — and, of course, that's the ultimate consumer."