During my visit to Khon Kaen University I was fortunate enough to meet with Dr. Supaporn Poungchompu who is a lecturer at KKU and has been studying insect agriculture with surrounding villages. Her current focus is on discovering what’s drives the demand of insect farming in Thailand. Once that is better defined, they can better understand how to fuel the industry and start creating standards and food labeling.
Meet Dr. Supaporn:
How much does the average insect farmer sell their insects for?
Crickets are the most popular. The production cost is around 80 baht per kilo in the winter season and they sell for 100 to 120 baht per kilo ($1.36 to $1.63 per pound). In the summer season, the production cost is closer to 50 baht per kilo and sell for around 70 to 80 baht.
Why is the cost higher during colder seasons?
Like humans, the crickets can’t eat as much or reproduce as much so everything slows down.
What is the most common way these crickets are being farmed.
For cricket production, it’s more efficient to build the farm specifically for the crickets. There are two main methods to build the farms, concrete blocks or cement blocks. They also have much equipment that is used.
What is the average startup cost for a farmer to start farming crickets?
Around 20,000 to 30,000 baht ($600 to $900). Then food is the highest ongoing cost.
What is the most common types of cricket feed?
It depends on the farmer. Mostly vegetables or chicken feed. We tell the farmers that it would be better with fruits and vegetables because it’s healthier for the crickets, but some farmers use commercial chicken feed because it’s faster and easier.
Why does feeding crickets with vegetables take longer?
The life cycle of the cricket is longer when they eat vegetables instead of commercial chicken feed. Plus it takes extra time to grow the vegetables. Farmers can buy the chicken feed in credit which makes it easier for them to get the feed faster, then they can pay back the credit from their sales.
Does that mean the production cost is higher when they use chicken feed instead of vegetables?
Yes, but if you use the commercial feed, you’ll get the product within 3 months. Whereas if you feed with vegetables, you have to raise them for 4 months. The crickets are actually healthier when they eat vegetables because they live longer. But using vegetables means the farmers have to chop them into small pieces. Their first concern is the level of labor involved, second concern is the price.
Have farmers tried using vegetables from local markets that are past their due date to feed to their crickets?
Not likely, they have to operate out of necessity. There is not a lot of room for choices. It’s what’s most convenient to make quick money. Which is why most use cricket feed, because it’s quicker than vegetables so they can make more money.
Will retailers pay more for organic, vegetable fed crickets?
That’s what I’m currently working on. Right now, there is no label that farmers can have to inform markets if their crickets are organic or not.
What are you doing to figure that out?
First I need to find why more than half of Thai people don’t want to eat crickets. In order to create a standard and labels for quality, we need to first expand interest in the market.
So you’re trying to increase the market demand for edible crickets?
Yes. Last year, of the 100 farmers found raising crickets, there are only 4 left because the demand is not high enough.
Did that drop in supply increase prices?
Yes, when there was 100 farmers they would sell for 40-50 baht per kilo, now with only a handful of farmers they sell for 100 baht.
Does the price vary depending on village of cricket farmers?
Yes, some villages can only sell to just one buyer. Other had more options to sell so they can sell them for more. Some villages will pay extra for transportation to sell to other retail markets.
What are you and your colleges doing to increase the demand?
We first are learning about the consumer behavior–why people want to eat the insects.
Are you finding that the demand increasing?
Yes and after the demand has increased enough, we can start to produce the symbol to ensure it’s safe for eating. Which would be another cost for the farmer and middle man.
Would that certification process be an additional cost for the farmer?
Yes, and the middle man. But if organic farmers want to sell their product for more they would have to invest in getting their farm and product certified.
Once the crickets are ready for harvesting, what is the most common ways for farmers to sell them?
Either farmers can sell to people who are deep frying them at markets or sell them to a collector will visits villages and collects the crickets to sell to the wholesale market.
Do farmers have a preference?
They would prefer to sell directly to the collector. It’s easier, but the price is lower than selling them to the market–about 15 baht.
At this point, my recorder lost its juice. We continued to discuss various factors that could affect the demand for cricket production. A big one being the influence western culture has on the younger generation of Southeast Asia. Though they’re still seeing demand increase, it will be interesting to see if the new generation is as keen on cooking up insects and mom and dad are.
Dr. Supaporn invited me back to Khon Kaen University when the new semester starts at the end of January 2015 to visit some of the farms they’re conducting studies on. It is my mission to create a relationship a village that will allow us to partner together with future endeavors.