Denver's Cricket Maven Serves the Ultimate Paleo Crunch

Wendy McGill disputes preconceived Western notions that bugs are pests with no place at a foodie's table. She's on the cusp of opening a cricket farm in Denver.
None of Wendy McGill's childhood bug-related memories are good ones. "I'm deathly afraid of tarantulas," admits the Denver-based social science researcher, recalling one particularly vivid visit to the amphibian room at a zoo. "I was running my nose along the glass, and I ran right into a tarantula. I bolted out of there."

Her fear of tarantulas is irrational: "I know that in my intellectual mind," she says. And that's why McGill's always candid about her personal apprehension at the bug-eating workshops she runs. "Even as strongly as I believe in this work I'm doing," McGill explains, "I still have cultural qualms with eating insects."

McGill's forte is entomophagy -- that's the technical term for eating bugs. With a bachelor's in international affairs from CU-Boulder and a master's in international and intercultural communication from the University of Denver, McGill's career has been, well, all over the map.

Traversing two years in the Peace Corps in Ukraine and consulting work with UNICEF, WHO and Habitat for Humanity International, among others, McGill has worked on everything from migration and human trafficking to water sanitation. But it was in Denver volunteering at local school gardens that she realized her true passion: agriculture.  

From there, McGill learned about bug farming on Twitter; the more she learned, the more she wanted in. "Farming insects hits so many different areas at once," she says.

The original meatMcGill learned about bug farming on Twitter.

If eating bugs sounds new age, or even a little yuppie, it isn't. "Humans," explains McGill, "have harvested the eggs, larvae, pupae and adults of certain insect species for thousands of years."

There's even some evidence indicating insects were the first meat humans ate, which makes them the original Paleo-friendly meal.

"Some of the earliest mentions of eating insects are in the Old Testament," adds McGill. "Some species were actually kosher."

Over the next couple of thousand years, some humans stopped eating bugs, and others didn't, possibly, McGill says, because of varying access to agricultural technology.

In general, cultures that don't routinely eat bugs are actually outliers. A 2013 United Nations report examined insects as food and feed, finding about 80 percent of the worldwide human population still eats bugs, either as special occasion and seasonal food or a dietary mainstay.

In places struggling with food insecurity, bugs can be a significant source of fat, protein and nutrients. But, they aren't just for emergencies. "Bugs are a nutritious food people collect in the wild, and that's not necessarily about desperation," McGill says.

There's a type of caterpillar that's popular in West Africa, according to McGill. Closer to Colorado, Mexico has a thriving edible insect market: A certain grasshopper is used in tacos, and McGill also points to "an ant larvae that's considered the caviar of Mexico."

Currently, there are about 2,000 identified insect species and, generally speaking, "Insects tend to have about the same amount of protein as chicken when comparing by weight," McGill says.

Micronutrients are even more potent than what you'd find in traditional meat sources, she adds. For instance, crickets have almost as much calcium as milk and more iron than beef -- plus, they deliver tons of immune-bolstering Vitamin A.

If eating crickets still sounds too bizarre, consider this: they're the cousins of those delectable little animals we call seafood. "Shellfish and insects, as well as spiders, are all in the same phylum, called arthropods," explains McGill.

A more sustainable protein Her climate-controlled bug farm debuts in September in Denver's Valverde neighborhood.

As the world population continues to increase and our finite amount of arable land disappears, we'll need creative ways to sustain ourselves. Insect farming might be one solution.  

Farming bugs doesn't require nearly as much land as ranching livestock -- and that's not just because of a cricket's meager size. "Many insect species," McGill says, "are comfortable lumped into large groups. That's how it is in the wild, and it's normal and healthy for them to be crowded into a bin."

The feed conversion ratio for bugs -- how much feed is needed to create about a pound of meat -- is low. It takes about 1.7 kilograms of seed to make 1 kilogram of cricket meat. Chicken need about three times that amount, and cattle require ten times the seed.  

Bugs also take less water than livestock. "If you consider what cows drink and what goes into irrigating their feed crop, they generally need about 10,000 times more water than crickets," McGill says, noting that she's never been down on responsible ranching. She's simply about diversifying our options.

Bugs might be one of the last free-range proteins, but, particularly in the U.S. and other developed nations, McGill doesn't advocate for wild farming -- mostly because of pesticides and the strong potential for contamination.

Eating farmed insects is wiser, and McGill's gearing up to deliver them to Front Range buyers via her forthcoming Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch, the first farm in Colorado to raise insects for food and feed.

"At the Micro Ranch we'll primary focus on the food aspect with crickets and mealworms, but they'll also be raised to be used as a supplemental chicken feed," McGill says.  

Her climate-controlled bug farm debuts in September 2015 in a 1,000-square-foot space in Denver's Valverde neighborhood, where McGill will produce 50 pounds of crickets every six weeks -- the same turnaround you'd see at an industrial chicken farm.

McGill's facility is quaint, but that isn't a big deal since cricket farming -- a noisy operation -- lends itself to vertical space. Shelves run to the ceiling at the Micro Ranch, and they'll hold large plastic and wooden bins containing crickets grouped by age.

"That's so we can best take advantage of breeding cycles, and continue to grow the herd by separating the eggs," McGill clarifies. The coop design lets poop drop down for easy collection, and those droppings might come in handy as McGill continues exploring sales opportunities within the marijuana grow industry.

In the meantime, she'll be partnering with local breweries like Wit's End Brewing Company, as spent grain can be repurposed as insect feed.

Waiter, there's no fly in my soup!

Sautéed grasshoppers over kale, anyone? Yes, McGill has some crickets she'll serve whole, either baked or broiled. "Most people are surprised by the grainy texture and sunflower seed or popcorn taste," says McGill. "They're like tofu because they take on the flavors around them."

Crickets aren't typically consumed whole, though. America's edible industry focuses on cricket powder or flour that goes into nutrient-rich protein bars, chips -- even granola.

Naturally gluten-free and organic, cricket powder is "a great addition to the non-wheat flours already on the market," says McGill. She'll throw her insect flour in a batch of chocolate chip cookies for added nourishment, and she serves these sorts of buggy goodies up at the free workshops she hosts around town in partnership with Little Herds, an entomophagy advocacy nonprofit organization based in Austin, Texas.

At the 2015 edition of the Denver County Fair, McGill gave out over 2,000 samples of cricket-laced goodness, and held a cricket-eating contest where a set of fraternal twins competed. "The sister pulled ahead at the end," McGill says, and she won by consuming a third of a cup of roasted crickets in under five minutes. "That doesn't sound like a lot, but they're really chewy."

As far as we're concerned, there's only one question left: Which of Denver's acclaimed eateries will be the first to add edible insects to the seasonal, local, organic menu?

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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