Mealworms Are Next Big Braintree Crop
Simpson Farm Hopes for a Rebound
As recently as 2013, Bob and Tay Simpson were milking 325 Holstein cows at their Circle Saw Farm in Braintree. Although tough times led to the end of their dairying days that year, the folks at this Peth Road farm are still tending lots of critters—more than 100,000, in fact.
The farm’s livestock population zoomed up a few months ago when a shipment of live mealworms joined the beef cows, meat goats and sheep, and boarded animals on the farm.
Now, a number of the purchased mealworms in the Simpsons’ starter batch have completed their metamorphosis from worm to pupa to adult beetle. Thousands of black beetles are now mating in “towers” of shallow, black plastic trays in the basement of the now unused milking parlor.
Bob Simpson, along with farm assistant and neighbor Heather Adams, are the primary tenders of the insects, with Tay Simpson and son Andy, who lives on the farm, helping out.
Given that each female lays up to 500 eggs, Bob Simpson anticipates that the Vermont Mealworm Farm will soon have millions of mealworms.
They’re going to take over the entire 8400-square-foot milking parlor, Simpson said, but the population will be kept in check, because he plans on shipping millions of live mealworms to online buyers for use as chicken and pet food, tempting treats for bluebirds, and as people food, for those up for that experience.
He plans to deliver some of his “micro-livestock” to local fish bait shops, as well.
“Trout LOVE mealworms,” noted Adams.
So do her chickens. Adams said she fed her little flock a few live ones recently, and the worms were such a hit that the birds now rush her every time she appears, in apparent hopes of scoring more of the tan squirmers, each somewhere between three-quarters to one-anda quarter inches long.
Simpson said there may even be a market for mealworm castings. He has found references suggesting that the castings (the worms shed their hard castings as they grow) are an optimal fertilizer for marijuana plants.
So far as Simpson knows, although a lot of folks raise mealworms at home in small food-forthe gecko-type set ups, there are only three commercial-scale farms selling live mealworms in the nation. The others are in California, Florida, and Louisiana—and with no competition in New England, Simpson anticipates that business will be good.
The mealworm market is now dominated by China, but farmers there sell only dead, or dried, worms, and, “Who knows what they feed them,” Simpson commented.
He and Adams know what’s going down the hatch of their worms: “Nice wheat bran and Vermont potatoes,” said Simpson.
One corner of the basement now housing the mealworm operation has a couple huge wooden crates full of sprouting potatoes, donated by the Chappelle farm in Williamstown.
Simpson has already hooked up with a cricket farm in Williston, for some collaboration on shipping his mealworms, and has hired Will Read of Waterbury to design a logo, packaging, and a website.
Vermont Mealworm Farm already has a Facebook page, with some photos posted.
Simpson is hopeful that the mealworms will prove to be a profitable venture. He anticipates they will generate more income than the farm’s cows produced, and, he added, tending them takes a lot less time than managing a dairy herd.
He and Adams each spend about 30 minutes a day caring for the mealworms, pupa, adult beetles, and eggs that they now have on hand.
“I enjoy working with them,” Simpson said. “It’s exciting to see the pupa turn into beetles.”
A couple of beetles fell to the floor, while Simpson and Adams were showing the insects’ life stages to a reporter and photographer. Every bug that tumbled was carefully retrieved and returned to its tray.
Female beetles can each deliver a potential “three-to-four-bucks” of revenue, thanks to their egg-laying prowess, Simpson explained, “So they get more respect.”
He hopes that mealworms can assist the farm to escape its recent history of debt.
A “complete auction” of the Simpson farm—including the total acreage and all buildings and equipment— was canceled at the last moment last October, when the Simpsons filed for Chapter 12 protection in federal bankruptcy court in Rutland. At the time, the farm’s assets were estimated at $4.7 million and its liabilities at $3.3 million.
The debt stemmed from the Simpsons’ decision in 2002 to borrow $2.5 million and expand their dairy operation by adding 200 milkers. Then followed a series of road bumps—including the bankruptcy of one of their creditors.
Simpson said they stayed current with all loan payments until Tropical
Storm Irene in 2011 destroyed crops and forced them to buy feed. Several of their creditors filed a foreclosure action against them in 2012.
Since October, the Simpsons and their lawyer have argued before a federal bankruptcy judge that the orderly sale of some of the farm’s parcels and equipment could yield more revenue than a foreclosure auction. They also drafted a plan to move forward and out of debt, over the next five years.
Although the legal proceeding continues, some progress has been made.
One major creditor—Peoples United Bank—has been paid in full, and another two are supportive of the plan, Simpson said this week. A fourth, however, Wells Fargo Financial Leasing, has been fighting the resolution.
Simpson acknowledged that the judge “wrote off” a number of the farm’s smaller creditors: “It was quite a bit of money, actually,” he said.
The court also approved the Simpsons’ plan to sell three substantial parcels. Simpson said this week that the sales will close by the end of this month. Brookfield farmers Lynn and Alice Wakefield are buying 231 acres on Braintree Hill, and Volker Bahnemann is buying two parcels—of 70 and 54 acres— adjacent to his East Braintree property, Simpson said.
From Dairy to Diversity
Since the farm stopped milking cows in 2013, Circle Saw has diversified. Simpson said its major revenue source has been selling high-quality hay. Other income sources are the rental properties the Simpsons own, the animals they board, and those they raise for meat. Tay now works as a herdsman at the Ayers Brook Goat Dairy.
In his researches for new directions for the farm, Simpson considered mushrooms. However, daughter Betsy now works at the 1000 Stone Farm in Brookfield, which grows mushrooms, so that idea was shelved.
This year, with some progress being made on the farm’s financial front, Simpson decided to invest in mealworms.
While most folks are less than enthused about eating bugs (it’s called entomophagy), insects are routinely incorporated into diets in many cultures around the world.
And, in this time of climate change, there is a growing interest in shifting our diets towards protein sources with a lighter carbon footprint than, say, that involved in raising and processing beef cattle.
Mealworms are high in protein and fat, with live ones about 20% protein, and 53% for dried ones.
It’s not necessary to eat a crunchy wriggler. A quick online search shows that dry-roasting the worms is pretty easy, and the result can be ground up and added, inconspicuously, to dishes. Mealworms are becoming popular as a protein supplement, Simpson said.
Books on the merits of entomophagy abound, and include titles such as “The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook” and “The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet.”
The Simpsons have a ready ally on the mealworms-as-people-food front: daughter Betsy is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, where a unit on insect food is a part of the curriculum.
“She is ready to start cooking with them,” Simpson said.