If you’d told me five years ago I was going to be growing edible insects from farm, food and brew leftovers in regional Tasmania. I wouldn’t have laughed at you. I would have carefully backed away and headed for the exit.
Leap forward a few years, to June 2018 when I launched Rebel Food Tasmania as part of the Dark MOFO festival. I am an insect farmer.
Rebel Food Tasmania is the first and only edible insect farm in the state, and nationally from what we know, where the micro herds are raised on leftovers from commercial kitchens, farms, vineyards and microbreweries.
It’s been a massive learning curve and adventure. At times a bit of a lonely adventure. There are no other farmers I can drop round to chat with about how their micro herds are faring. It’s the simple questions that I often want to ask. How are they managing to stop their woodies from attempting to climb every surface they can get their antennae around? Why are the darkling beetles eggs taking sooo long to hatch…will they hatch? Are they noticing the crickets are a a bit slower off the mark depending on the seasons? Why is it that at certain stages of life crickets prefer one food over another? Do they find themselves enchanted with the singing of the male crickets (surely it’s not just me)?
What made me decide to become an entopreneur? It was an accidental path of discovery about Tasmania’s food waste, and the stark reality of how much our food and agriculture systems impact our natural world and are contributing to climate change. Not to mention they taste damned good, and are a nutritionally dense whole food.
Growing things makes me happy. Doing new things, challenging convention and pushing myself out of my comfort zone stops my easily bored streak coming through. Which are generally good character traits if you’re about to try something no-one else around you is doing. Not so good for doing those admin chores though.
I have been called a troublemaker more than once. I like to take it as a compliment. My background is varied ranging from an unfinished law degree, a finished double major in Journalism, Politics and International Studies. A stint studying at the Australian Film and Television Radio Institute (AFTR). Working as a vet nurse, forest campaigner across four states (that’s how I came to Tassie), being sued multiple times by Tasmanian logging corporations (hello Gunns 20), paid and voluntary climate campaigner, markets campaigner, Campaigns Advisor to the Leader of a federal political party, coordinator of Getup election campaigns, and sustainability & social media/marketing consultant.
Now I’m an insect farmer. A completely logical career path, if you stand back and squint at it in just the right way.
Variety is the spice of life as they say, but it has to be spice with purpose. It was while working as a Campaigns Advisor I came across the amount of farm and food waste that does not make it to plates or market in Tasmania. The amount was stunning. What was even more astounding was the utility of what may not pass muster for human consumption, but is still good for things like…oh, I dunno, feeding insects.
Feedstock that could be part of creating high value and nourishing food source for people, using a local food economy approach. Using food waste including kitchen scraps, carrots and tubers that would normally be bulldozed, used coffee grounds, stale breads and brew and vineyard waste. There is a world of seasonal and constant feed options to grow high quality edible insects. There is the added bonus that insect frass (the polite word for poo) is a great addition to compost.
The options for growing and developing a new agriculture business in Tasmania was, and is, pretty intoxicating. The logistics of how to do this are a little more sobering. It’s not like embarking on becoming a market gardener where I can talk to the others in the state doing the same thing. This was a first, and i’m breaking new ground - pretty much by myself.
The information on what infrastructure and systems were needed was sparse. I spent more time trawling the internet than I care to remember. Particularly when looking at how to start a farm that is using waste food streams. A farming system that is not recreating industrial food system problems, and really is sustainable from the energy used to power the systems (yay renewable energy), what to use as insect housing, and which insects were most suitable for Tasmania, and our biosecurity regulations, were all foundation questions. Questions I have to keep revisiting as I learn, scale up and work on edible insect food products.
This is how I settled on the three main insect species being farmed. The crowd pleasing cricket, the more well know mealworm, and then there is a surprise package of the woodie. Visually the woodies are a bit of an obstacle for first time eaters. Once people taste that umami fifth element, they are won over. I am their head cheerleader as a taste addition to a dish, and frankly they are fascinating animals.
Being the only insect farmer in the village of Tasmania, and the only one in Australia focused on growing within a local food system approach it can be a bit of a vacuum of information and feedback. That said, it’s an adventure I’m glad i began, and will keep on beginning again every day - for as long as I can.
What sustains me on a personal level is talking with other farmers, chefs, foodies and activists about the difference we can make by rethinking how we do food. It’s about food systems. How we grow food, eat food and think about it’s role in building soil, health, local economies and community. It is one of the things that can bring us together, and food shapes culture. For us to change systems and take the ‘suss’ out of ‘sustainable’ we need to rethink our modes of production, trade and eating.
Insect farms will not feed the world, or single handedly change the world. Building resilient and rejuvenating local food systems as part of a vibrant ecological framework will. Tasmania is uniquely placed to lead by example in turning around our industrial revolution ideas of agriculture. We have the opportunity to develop a rejuvenation revolution era of nourishing our natural world, social world and in turn us. It is all interconnected.