Alternative Agriculture: Mealworms

Published: Jun. 3, 2020 at 11:50 AM CDT
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When you think of farming in Nebraska, corn and cattle come to mind. But one business is producing something different in the Cornhusker state.

Cheryl Powers is the owner of Jord Producers, and her mealworm business got started in 2018. "There's no business as far as I'm aware of to this scale in Nebraska," Powers said. "I was actually introduced to insect agriculture because of a food company in Lincoln. It was a startup business using cricket protein." But Powers says she wasn't a fan of crickets. "My inner child just had fears," Powers joked. So, she settled on raising mealworms. And, she got two partners involved. "Our partner Kris Vrooman that lives in Juniata, I had approached her," Powers said. "We had done some grant writing regarding mealworm protein, and she was aware of the market. Then, I went through the UNL Accelerator, NMotion Start-Up Accelerator. I applied for that, and got into it. I called Kris, and said hey I got into the academy, will you join me?"

Amber Klassen from rural Lindsay was recruited to join the team. On the farms near Juniata and Lindsay, the mealworms are produced. "What we first start off with is the darkling beetle. They are little black bugs and they lay the eggs," Klassen said. "We have trays built out for them in specialized trays to lay their eggs in." Klassen says they live in a wheat bran bedding, and are fed carrots and potatoes. "From there, we harvest eggs about once a week," Klassen said. Then they go to the larva stage, and there's another process at work. "We need breeding stock to hold back," Klassen said. "So what we do is we have about 5% of our stock turn into pupa, which is like a caterpillar state we would call it. They turn back into the beetle, and the process starts all over again."

The mealworm operation is located inside an old farrowing barn at the Lindsay location. "The building we are in used to have 15 farrowing crates in it," Klassen said. "My father-in-law built this in 1995." The building's use is an example of how Jord Producers works to be on the cutting edge, and always be sustainable. "Right now we sell both retail and wholesale, but our markets right now are the wild bird lovers," Powers said. "We also sell to the exotic pet market, like your reptiles and lizards. We even have a market for our tiniest worms, which are only about a quarter of an inch big. Those are fed to baby spiders, tarantulas, spiderlings, and so we ship those out. Besides selling the worms, we use the manure, or what is called frass. We have a market for that, and we sell that to both retail and wholesale as well."

The partners with Jord Producers say think their markets will expand. "We are selling the live market now," Klassen said. "But I think our opportunity over the next few years is going to expand greatly, either in the food or feed market, just because of the sustainability of raising mealworms." Powers says after growing up on the farm, it's good to be back in agriculture. "It's a different type of agriculture. It's a 21st Century kind of agriculture," Powers said.