In Cambodia, crickets are commonly eaten as snacks. Until recently, however, they have mostly been gathered in the wild, but enterprising farmers like Oung Vannak and Ou Sareourn are now cashing in on Cambodians’ insect appetites.
Four years ago, Oung Vannak and her husband, Ou Sareourn, found an unusual vehicle out of poverty: crickets. With just $1,000 of capital, the couple in Takeo’s Don Keo district set up a pen in which they planned to raise insects. They soon found that crickets make for cracking business.
Even outside the farm, located in Trapaing Russey village, the chirping of the insects is audible. Near the gate of the property are seven cricket pens, each of which is filled with hundreds of egg cartons, the crickets’ “artificial nests”, and tens of thousands of crickets. Six more pens are at the back of the house. They are covered with nets to prevent the insects from escaping and their foes, such as chickens and lizards, from getting in.
According to Vannak, taking care of the crickets is not a labourious task. Every morning, she feeds them – a combination of duck food from the store and homegrown vegetables like morning glory.
“The harvest is collected in a cycle pattern,” Vannak says. “Once the crickets lay the eggs, we can harvest them and deliver them to our middlemen, and in the next week, the eggs in the pens will hatch.” About six weeks later, the crickets will have laid eggs again and be ready for market. Each pen can produce up to 100 kilograms of crickets per harvest at $3 per kilogram.
“We used to be so poor that I had to go to work on the plantation in Thailand after we were done with the harvesting of our rice, but we never had much money when I came back,” Vannak says. Currently, the family’s cricket farm has buyers from all over the country, and the growing business has allowed them to improve their lives significantly. Just two years ago, they bought a tractor and a car with the income.
In addition to providing revenue, the crickets also help the family in the rice fields. Sareourn says the crickets’ waste is a useful fertiliser for crops.
It was the couple’s son, 27-year-old Nheourk Phearum, who first came up with the business idea. He noticed that throughout the country, locals eat insects, but that the majority sold in the markets are caught in the wild.
“Farming can produce more and better crickets. So I did more research and started this farm with my family,” he says. Phearum is a true insect farming evangelist; he just finished writing a book, which he hopes to publish, about cricket farming.
“When I came to study at university in Phnom Penh, I learned from the internet that cricket farming has been used by many countries to solve their food problems since it requires little space and only basic skill,” he says. “It is called the food of the future.”
According to a 2013 report by the Food and Agricultural Organization called Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security, crickets and other insects could solve a wide range of the world’s food and health problems, on top of being useful for feeding livestock and fish. One hundred grams of crickets contain 8-25 grams of protein. While relatively easier and more affordable than raising livestock or poultry, cricket farming produces very little CO2 and other pollutants.
While the nutritional and environmental benefits have made the concept of eating insects more and more palatable in the West, crickets have been on the Khmer menu for centuries. Sombo Manara, a Cambodian historian and Khmer culture specialist, says that eating crickets dates to at least as far back as the 10th century during the Angkorian Empire, and thus is a part of Cambodians’ culture and identity. Nonetheless, the concept of farming them is relatively new in the Kingdom.
“In the past, people ate crickets and other insects to both increase their food sources and to prevent them from ruining their crops,” Manara says. “This is an example of how Cambodian people associate their lives with nature. Throughout history, our people have been getting the most out of their surroundings, and farming insects could be a significant turn in modern civilisation, just like when people first learned how to make fire.”
This week, after leaving the farm, Post Weekend tried a selection of deep-fried crickets raised in Vannak and Saroeurn’s pens. All along National Road 2 in Takeo, vendors sell the local specialty, which is cooked with kaffir, garlic and chili. With a potato chip-like crunchiness, the crickets are both savoury and spicy, with the kaffir leaves providing a soothing balance. The crickets’ long legs, however, are an impediment, and make toothpicks a required accessory.