“Slats revolutionized the hog industry; we need to go there before we go robots,” Shelby Smith matter-of-factly informs the visitors. She’s the owner and operator of Gym-N-Eat Crickets, a business in central Iowa that raises, processes, and sells crickets for human consumption, and she’s talking to Nichole and Krissy, two members of a group called Iowa Young Professionals in Agriculture who are visiting the cricket barn on a field trip. Eleven feet wide by 54 feet long, the boxy, metal-sided building was once a single-wide trailer home. Now it’s kept at a humid 87 degrees Fahrenheit year-round and churns out millions of crickets every 45 days. The crickets live inside 50-gallon plastic storage containers stacked on four tiers of metal wire shelving that lines the length of the barn on either side, creating a narrow pathway down the middle, where we’re standing.
Though crickets have been raised in the US as fishing bait since the 1940s and as food for pet reptiles and amphibians, it is only in the past 10 years that people have begun to farm them for human consumption, promoting them as an “alternative protein.” Crickets are mentioned in the same hopeful breath as plant-based and cell-cultured meat by those eager to foster more sustainable food systems. Collectively, “alternative proteins” are framed as potential replacements for industrially raised, grain-fed livestock, an existing industry maligned as heavily polluting and inefficient in its use of resources. “Minilivestock,” as crickets are called, are praised for their high nutritional value and low levels of greenhouse gas emissions, and for the relatively small footprint of land and amount of water required to raise them.
But the advent of this new food system begs another question: Who or what will do the work of raising crickets? It is a question about labor, specifically about automation.
Smith’s comment about slats before robots was part of a response to a question about what she would do if she got hold of some extra money for her business. She is referring to the raised, slatted flooring used in hog barns. Such flooring has long, narrow gaps in it, creating a system whereby waste falls through, meaning that the hogs don’t have to sit around in their own shit and people don’t need to do the work of removing it quite as often.
Unlike other insect agriculture businesses that are trying to deploy AI and robotics as labor-saving production technologies, if Smith got her hands on extra financing, she would use it to make “low-tech, common-sense improvements” before anything else. As she sees it, these companies have “skipped a step” in the race to be the first to reach “the future of food.” “If people were actually here to expand the market, to do widespread scaling, they would waste less time worrying about getting things patented and developing quote unquote technology. We’d be a lot further ahead if they just worried about raising crickets and doing small iterations to make things more efficient.”
When it comes to our food systems, the Silicon Valley maxim to “move fast and break things” should not apply. We do need change, but what if to get there, we followed Smith’s lead and focused less on “quote unquote technology,” shrouded as it is in promissory narratives and ripe for astute and necessary, but dead-end, techno-fix critique? What if, in the quest to change our food systems, rather than attempting big “technological” leaps alone, we paved the path there, perhaps a little more slowly, but together, one “low-tech, common-sense improvement” at a time?
I learned about one such improvement technology during my fieldwork in central Iowa, as a worker in Smith’s cricket barn. It was developed by Frank, one of the six contract farmers who had taken on cricket farming as a side hustle to supplement their main sources of income. These contract farmers raised crickets for Smith’s business in their own “barns”—closets, sheds, and other spaces converted for farming crickets, most importantly through the installation of insulation, to help keep the interiors around 87 degrees Fahrenheit, even in the winter.
For two and a half years, from late 2019 until the summer of 2022, Frank raised crickets in his own barn in southeastern Iowa. As she did with all her contract farmers, Smith provided his first population of baby crickets and would regularly supply him with cricket feed, a mix of corn, soy, oats, and fishmeal milled nearby in Huxley, Iowa. Every few months, Frank would sell the crickets he’d raised, full-grown and frozen, back to her.
Like her credo of “slats before robots,” Smith’s model of contract farming comes from the hog industry. The contract that she had Frank and the others sign is derived from a hog farming contract; she got a contract from a friend who works in that industry and modified it for crickets. One big difference between farming hogs and farming crickets is that when it comes to crickets, everything is scaled down, including the initial costs. Smith’s allegiance to “low-tech” methods goes hand in hand with her contract farming model of scaling up. The “low-tech” and accessible materials she uses—cardboard egg flats, paper plates, mason jars, plastic storage containers, gravel—make it easy, at least in theory, for a contract farmer to start their own cricket farm.
She also has a YouTube channel where she has uploaded all the “How To” videos she first created as instructional videos for her contract farmers, available for anyone, anywhere to watch. “I’ll show you how to do it,” she says. “And I hope you do, because the only way that we move this entire market forward is get more people doing it.” In Smith’s vision, once in operation, each cricket farm will work as its own minilaboratory for iterative tinkering, a process through which small innovations of practice will be developed and can then be shared across the whole group:
With the contract growing model, the approachable low-tech makes it a lot easier for me to recruit a group. It’s less capital intensive up front. At the same time, my growers have autonomy. If they want to put the sensors in—some do, some don’t—it’s up to them. We have quality control in the feed, quality control in the methods, but the rest of the stuff—who am I to tell them not to get more efficient? They can develop whatever they want on their side, as long as they’re not impacting our final product. … Holistically, we get things figured out. We have multiple sets of brains and eyeballs and everything else going through the process, so when somebody comes up with something that’s really efficient, it’s shared across growers.
So, here it is, Frank’s “low-tech, common-sense” innovation: a form for stacking cardboard egg flats that he codesigned and created with a few of his cousins, who are welders. It’s made by welding together a few pieces of sheet metal at a right angle:
It may not look like much, but when I visited Frank after a few months of working in Smith’s cricket barn, doing the tedious work of balancing delicate egg flats into neat, tight stacks, I could appreciate the truly revolutionary nature of this little blue metal form.
Frank got the idea after many hours of building housing for crickets—placing cardboard egg flats on top of each other to form a stack, then carefully picking up the stack and bending over to wedge it into one of the 50-gallon plastic bins that holds each population of crickets. He calls this metal form one of his “back-saving” innovations, like the wheels he added to his ladder.
Maybe “low-tech” is still a “techno-fix,” but just of a different order and temporality than the AI and robots it is framed in opposition to.
Every new population of crickets needs new housing, and cardboard egg flats are the most important component. Here in Iowa, they are cheap and easy to come by because more eggs are produced in this state than in any other in the country. Stacked, the cardboard egg flats increase the surface area inside the bin, creating space for the crickets to stand on and dark places for them to hide. One of the stacks is made with full-sized egg flats and the other two stacks are made with egg flats that have been cut in half; when all three stacks are turned horizontally and wedged into the bin, they create a short, high platform and a longer, lower one. Paper plates filled with feed are placed on the platforms, as is a plastic tray holding a waterer made from a quart-sized mason jar with a screw-on plastic top that turns it into a gravity-powered watering system. These were originally designed to provide water for chickens and are readily available at the farm supply stores around Iowa.
Looking at Frank’s form, I couldn’t help thinking about the many days I had spent standing in Smith’s hot and humid cricket barn creating the stacks of egg flats that when wedged into a bin together constitute the crickets’ housing. Alternating—one up, one down—so that the small, flattened bottoms of the flats’ cups lined up just so; cursing when one of them shifted a millimeter or two, upsetting the balance and making the whole stack collapse in a dusty heap. I’d had to start over more times than I could count. I had heard about Frank’s invention but had never used one.
When I spoke to her on the phone before arriving in Iowa for the first time, Smith had been quick to sing the praises of Frank’s creation, holding it up as an example of the kind of “low-tech, common-sense” technologies she sees as an alternative to flashy “high-tech” innovations. “In terms of efficiency of practice, it takes stacking egg flats from a two-minute job to a 20-second job,” she said. “But that’s not going to raise you $16 million. You’re not going to patent that. I can’t go to a panel of investors and be like, ‘I need $16 million to build it.’ That’s why I said I’m not in the game. I’m not interested in venture capital.”
But despite her vision of rejecting “high-tech” (and the large sums of money needed to develop it) and instead building a network of small cricket farms that would grow together by sharing innovations with one another, she had not actually put Frank’s labor-saving creation into action on her own cricket farm.
The truth is that her contract farming model has not worked out. Of the six contract farmers she brought on board, Frank lasted the longest. And when he quit at the end of summer 2022, she had none left. Large insect agriculture firms will be the first to tell you there’s a reason they have decided that creating large-scale, automated rearing facilities is the way to go. Farming crickets the “low-tech” way requires physically demanding manual labor in hot and humid conditions that must be done every day. And, claiming various reasons—personal health, time constraints, trouble maintaining high and healthy cricket populations—all the people who signed contracts to farm for Smith thus far have quit, some before successfully raising a single cricket.
In a way, she blames herself—“I’m guilty of making farming crickets look easier than it is”—and she calls the whole contract farming endeavor “my biggest failure so far.” Smith made herself available 24/7 to answer their questions by phone, but she wishes that she had spent more time with each of her contract farmers, making sure that they really got a handle on the process before letting them do it on their own. Frank says maybe he’ll start up again once he gets his health concerns sorted out, but that’ll only be if Smith figures out a way to make cricket farming less time consuming and more lucrative for the farmers who contract with her. And Smith says that if she were to start taking on contractors again, she’d motivate them to figure out ways to increase their production by changing the payment structure to include positive reinforcement for high yields instead of just paying by the pound. She still gets calls from people who see her in the press or meet her while she’s selling crickets, at places like the Des Moines Downtown Farmers’ Market, and reach out and ask about farming crickets for her business. But for now, she’s iterating alone.
In early 2023, demand for Smith’s final products outstripped her capacity to raise enough crickets. She’s now hatching plans to build her own new cricket barn, fitted out to incorporate some of the innovations she’s made since starting her business in January 2018. She applied for a $25,000 grant from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship to help pay some of the cost of the new building. But when I spoke to her recently, she told me that her application had been rejected on a technicality and she was having trouble securing private loans. She wasn’t sure what she would do.
So, what can we learn about the “low-tech” side of agri-food tech from Smith’s story, mixed as it is with inspiring utopian visions of collective progress, successful innovations never widely adopted, failures that become the impetus for dreams of new avenues of growth, and searches for public and private funding that lead to dead ends?
Maybe “low-tech” is still a “techno-fix,” but just of a different order and temporality than the AI and robots it is framed in opposition to. It doesn’t promise a miraculous arrival at a new and better future brought about for all by one, lone genius. Instead, it keeps alive an old, enduring fantasy that each of us, starting with very little but driven by the will to optimize, can make small improvements that slowly, iteratively, accrete into innovations that enable collective flourishing, but only if we each take responsibility for our own self-improvement. Maybe here, “low-tech” is an ethos and practice that keeps people tethered in a relation of cruel optimism to a new fantasy figure for our times—the side-hustling yeoman farmer who builds wealth and his own good character through hard agricultural work, all while holding down another job—and the failure of “low-tech” is the failure of the neoliberal fantasy.1
- Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press, 2011). ↩