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Imports fly as crickets disappear

I hope that breeding my own will yield enough crickets for market demand – no more depending on nature.

A DECLINE in the number of crickets caught this year has Cambodia’s insect industry struggling to meet demand for one of the Kingdom’s favourite snacks.

Cricket farmers, wholesalers and market vendors alike are having to raise prices, import from abroad and breed their own insects – as overharvesting and flooding threaten their livelihoods.

Seven kilometers outside Kampong Thom Town, in Santuk district, 46-year-old Penh Menghart has been catching the insects for more than four years, assisted by her two teenage children who worked in a nearby brick factory to raise the 2.6 million riels (US$615) necessary to start the budding enterprise.

“It’s hard work because every cricket season, I have to be awake all night, every night. I never get any sleep,” she said, squatting next to the side of her bamboo shack alongside National Road 6.

Along the roadside, 15 bamboo poles 2 metres apart are wrapped tightly in sheets of plastic.

At the height of the cricket season, the sheets will be unfurled and topped by a blue fluorescent tube, powered by a diesel generator, to lure the insects.

Another plastic sheet will be stretched beneath to catch the bugs as they crash to the ground, stunned.

“During the cricket season, I can normally catch 4 to 5 kilograms of crickets per night,” she said.

But like many insect harvesters, she saw a drop in cricket numbers from April to June – when the nights were largely moonless. Too often this year she caught just 1 kilogram per night, for which she was paid 10,000 riels.

“The number of crickets was a lot less than last year, maybe due to the flooding. Last year, I made a profit of US$100, this year I will just about be able to feed my family,” she said.

The government has recognised dwindling cricket reserves. Officials have pointed to overharvesting as a possible cause.

Ith Nody, under secretary of state at the Ministry of Agriculture, said Sunday: “The cricket numbers are decreasing. It can be a very profitable business for people. Lots of people like to eat them.”

However, he remained unconcerned about the future of the insect, highlighting the potential for crickets to damage crops and the large number of young the insects produce.

Nevertheless, this does little to calm Penh Menghart or assure her future. Fuel costs weigh heavily on her mind. It costs 20,000 riels each night to pay for the five litres of fuel needed to power the cricket-attracting lights and with no transport or means to store bugs, she is unable to expand her business.

She remains at the mercy of the insect population and the purchasing power of the wholesalers – who act as middlemen between the farmers and markets, and maintain a monopoly on pricing.

“I used to live in a small house. Now, look, I have a big house,” said beaming 44-year-old cricket wholesaler, Chhon Somarom, gesturing at her home in Kampong Thom town.

Outside the two-storey building, four large sealed polystyrene boxes are piled up with ice and 160 kilograms of chilled crickets ready for transport.

“We take them to markets at Chbah Ampeau [in south-east Phnom Penh] and Skuon [the capital of Cheung Prey district, Kampong Cham province], where we sell them for 14,000 riels per kilogram to other wholesalers or small vendors,” she said.

Upon receiving a call from the cricket farmers in the early hours of the morning, she will collect the fresh catch.

After loading the still-wriggling bagfuls of crickets into her truck, she drives back to her house, where they are put into large iceboxes. The insects are killed by the cold and kept fresh for storage.

But despite a monthly profit of around 800,000 riels, the 17-year veteran of Cambodia’s cricket industry is also worried about a depleted cricket supply.

“They are decreasing every year. People are harvesting too many, even during their breeding season,” she said.

“Every year I export my surplus to Thailand. Last year I sent 45 tonnes, this year I had only a third of that to sell.”

Depleted stocks meant this year she also chose to import insects from Thailand to help meet domestic demand – a situation that has brought its own pricing concerns.

“Imports from Thailand cost me 170 baht ($5.25) per kilo, but when I export, [Thai importers] will only pay 120 baht per kilo. I also have to pay around 50,000 riels to customs officials when I bring them into Cambodia,” she said.

But a solution may be at hand. Thailand’s market continues to thrive as crickets are bred in captivity, a development that Chhon Somarom plans to undertake in the near future.

The wholesaler plans to inspect breeding farms in Thailand and learn the best methods for feeding and housing the crickets.

“I hope that breeding my own will yield enough crickets for market demand – no more depending on nature,” she said.

With a ready supply of insects, markets in neighbouring countries may also open up.

“Today I got a call for the first time from a Vietnamese buyer, so I really need to get more crickets,” she said.

Also dealing with the occasional Vietnamese buyer is her daughter Yerm Sopheak, 19, whose day starts with a sizzle at 7am at Kampong Thom town market.

Wielding a large spatula, she shovels a large portion of chilled crickets into a large, bubbling oil-filled wok. Popping and spitting, the crickets are deep-fried with sauce and spices, before being taken out and put on two large plates.

“I get several Vietnamese customers here,” she said, as the crickets cook away, their heads and wings glistening in the oil. “They are the most common foreigners.”

But supply has been a problem for the market vendor, as prices demanded by wholesalers have risen this year.

“Raw crickets now have a price of around 13,000 to 14,000 riels per kilogram; that’s increased by 5,000 riels per kilogram since 2009,” she said.
Although she is concerned about the rise in price, her customers seem unconcerned.

Munching on a handful sneaked from two piles of cooked insects as he waits for Yerm Sopheak to scoop up a can of the chili-flavoured variety, Chhon Chamroeun, 26, remains unperturbed.

“The price always seems stable to me: A can is 2,000 riels,” he said, between crunchy mouthfuls. “And I love them. They taste great.”

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