My day usually starts at 5:45am. I get up early because, in addition to my day job as a software engineer, I’m part of a three-person team called Tiny Farms.
We started our company in 2012, trying to figure out a niche in the rapidly growing entomophagy industry. Entomophagy, if you haven’t heard, is the human consumption of insects. As a species, we’ve been eating bugs since the day we arrived, but it’s only in the past few years – thanks to dedicated efforts by some pioneers, and increasing pressure on the global food system – that people in the West have begun to see the benefits.
While San Francisco is still dark and foggy, I open up my email. From the day we announced our company, we’ve been receiving messages from people who are excited about growing (and eating) bugs. It’s not surprising, with encouragement from both the UN FAO and from culinary pioneers like Nordic Food Lab, the team behind Noma.
To begin with, we’d get one or two every couple of weeks – people asking for advice on setting up a bug farm, or looking for a place to buy food-grade insects. Soon it was every other day. Right now, we get dozens in a typical day – with senders ranging from schoolteachers in Hong Kong to survivalists in the US Midwest, and often a couple from blogs or the press. Most of our messages are from regular people who have heard about something exciting and want to get involved.
In the morning, when I’m most rested, I try to work on creative stuff. Figuring out designs, building up our web community and tools, writing content for our website. We’re a small team, all working part time, so there’s a lot for each of us to do. We get to try our hands at everything, be it meta-analysis of scientific papers, live radio interviews, or the design and fabrication of farming equipment.
We just launched Open Bug Farm, our initiative to design an insect farm that anyone can use to grow nutritious edible bugs. Since it’s Open Source, the farm’s designs will be freely available for anybody to use, improve and contribute back to the community. It’s designed to be built using materials available anywhere in the world, from Europe to sub-Saharan Africa.
Once the first designs are ready, we’ll be selling a pre-built kit that will allow anyone to start growing bugs. We’re aiming for release in Q1 2014. This means that in the next couple of months we’re going to have to source materials, figure out fulfillment, start taking orders and begin shipping to customers. All in the gaps between our day jobs.
There’s a lot to learn, but we’ve come a long way in the past year. Most companies in Silicon Valley are building products that are fun, or convenient, but not especially world-changing. It’s satisfying to be building something that can help put food on people’s plates – and extra money in their pockets.
Just after 8am, I get on my bike and ride to the station. My day job is in Palo Alto, where I write data processing software for a small, high-tech bank. I try to get work done on the train, but the data connection isn’t great. Once I arrive at work, I stop being a bug farmer for the next 8 hours. It’s easier to juggle two careers when they’re completely unrelated.
Across the Bay, in Berkeley, Tiny Farms cofounders Andrew and Jena are also waking up. As well as the usual work, they’re custodians of our test farm – the prototype colonies of several species of insects which we maintain, true startup style, in a suburban garage. Our current stock includes crickets, mealworms and eublaberus sp. ivory – a kind of giant tropical cockroach (they taste like greasy chicken nuggets). In the past, we’ve raised silkworms, waxworms, tomato hornworms and more.
Bugs are low maintenance livestock, and with a little automation they only need managing and monitoring every couple of days. Our species don’t make terribly interesting pets, but they’re wonderful at converting cheap feed into protein. Typical maintenance tasks include topping up feed (grains, fresh vegetables and organic chicken food), separating adult bugs from their eggs and young, and recording the size, weight and growth of our stock.
We’re not just raising insects for fun – we’re part of a growing, global movement that is pioneering a more efficient form of meat production. It’s important to us that we’re producing food that people actually want to eat! A love of food and cooking is at the heart of what we do, and we’ve come up with some great dishes – silkworm pancakes taste much better than they sound.
In the evening, after finishing my day job and cooking up some dinner, it’s great to catch up with others from the edible bug community. There’s a real feeling that something big is getting started – it’s the early days of a revolution. We’ve just launched our own discussion board, at www.openbugfarm.com/forum, where farmers all around the world are beginning to share their stories. If you’d like to hear more, we’d love to see you there.