Joy Hillier is one of the few people who knows what it sounds like to walk into a building filled with millions of crickets. Funny enough, often they don't make a sound, and when they do it's only the sexually mature males.
"Sometimes you come into the cricket farm and you just hear the fans and the whirring," said the Windsor, N.S., farmer. "And then sometimes you come in and it sounds like a nice summer night in Nova Scotia."
Hillier, a graduate of Dalhousie University's agriculture school and president of Midgard Insect Farm Inc., is raising crickets after spotting a gap in the market.
Companies are increasingly seeking out the protein-rich insect for their products, but there aren't many people growing them. Enter Hillier, whose company has partnered with pet food producer Dockside Pet Products of Ontario.
Midgard is also among five Nova Scotia companies selected this month for Innovacorp's Clean-Tech Accelerate Program, a competition geared to help grow early-stage clean technology businesses.
The farm's Windsor operation consists of a large warehouse filled floor-to-ceiling with shelving units containing bins of crickets.
Its production goal is four million crickets every six weeks. Once mature, the insects are cooled to a hibernation-like state, then frozen. They're either freeze-dried or turned into a powder, "legs and all," Hillier told CBC's Information Morning Cape Breton.
"The protein in crickets is more bioavailable, so basically your body can use it more readily than nutrients in other meat products," said Hillier.
"It's also extremely high in calcium, Omega-3 fatty acids and B12. On a pound-by-pound basis I believe it has more iron and magnesium than beef."
Scalable protein production
Raising crickets is more sustainable than raising traditional sources of protein, such as cows or pigs, in that they convert feed to protein more efficiently, require less water, and grow quickly in a small space, said Hillier.
Innovacorp president and CEO Stephen Duff said a low-cost, reliable protein source will be "one of the biggest challenges on the planet as we move into the future."
"So companies that are positioned to be able to supply protein in a cost-effective way, in a scalable way that can be exported, we believe have potential."
Emerging markets in human food
While Midgard is focused solely on the pet food industry as this point, Hillier believes the human market may grow in the future.
"In the meantime, all of our crickets are raised to be safe for human consumption, so we're following all the best practices and guidelines, if we ever were to go that route."
The Innovacorp award provides $20,000 and access to expertise to help grow the business.
Hillier's plan is to ramp up to a larger production facility within the next year, though in her line of work time may seem to pass at a slower, more relaxed pace.
"I joke it's always summer at the cricket farm, because it's about 30 degrees and you've got the sound of the crickets."