Industry: Food & Beverage
Products: Edible insects
Founder and CEO Wendy Lu McGill sells mealworms to restaurants for use in fancy meals and food manufacturers to incorporate into snack products.
McGill isn't wearing cowboy boots, but she's an urban rancher.
In plastic bins within a converted shipping container in West Denver, McGill is raising her micro livestock: mealworms. "We are one of only two farms that I'm aware of in North America that are farming mealworms for food," says McGill of her Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch (RMMR).
Why would -- no, make that why do people eat mealworms?
"Generally speaking, people eat things that taste good and are nutritious -- and that is the case with insects," says McGill. "Mealworms remind me of nuts, particularly when they're roasted." She adds that insects have "really solid nutritional profiles," packing high levels of amino acids and protein. Worldwide, 2 billion people eat insects, according to a United Nations report -- and McGill is counting on America's expanding culinary palate to increase those numbers.
Mealworms are the larvae of the darkling beetle. And at McGill's indoor ranch, there are examples of the tiny critters in various stages of their life cycle. In one plastic bin, there are minute larvae a couple of weeks old. In another, nearly-mature mealworms wriggle around in a wheat substrate. Some, she allows to fully mature, in order to become breeding stock. The ones that will eventually be eaten are separated-out into a bin without food, so they can undergo a purging. "It's kind of similar to deveining shrimp," says McGill. These larvae -- in the winter of their lives, so to speak -- will soon undergo an ending similar to meeting their fate outdoors in temperate climates: They expire from being put in a freezer for at least 48 hours.
"We sell our micro livestock to restaurants, to food manufacturers, and then direct to consumers mostly through our web store," says McGill. At a shared commercial kitchen, McGill prepares her mealworms -- which are packaged as Roasted Molitos. Denver restaurants to which she's sold insects include Linger and Comida at the Source. In addition to her own web store, her snack line is also available at the Butterfly Pavilion, the Children's Museum of Denver, and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
Cattle ranchers have to deal with manure, so what does McGill do with the mealworm frass, as it's technically called? McGill has begun to supply the frass to two Colorado hardware stores -- Ace on the Fax in Denver and Maxfield's Market in Paonia -- where it's vended as a soil amendment. McGill says, "On average, mealworm frass has about twice the NPK [nitrorogen, phosphorus, and potassium] numbers as cow or steer manure, and it doesn't need to be composted. You can see that it's very dry. It's really kind of sand-like. It really doesn't have much of an odor, either."
At one time, McGill raised crickets in the same shipping container, but she's since ceased. "We tried farming both species in one space, and their environmental needs are different enough that you just don't get optimal results," says McGill. "We're doubling down on the mealworms." She's looking for a new space to expand her operations, allowing her to raise crickets again. Meanwhile, she continues to make her Chirpy Jerky product using crickets from other sources.
McGill came to Colorado from North Carolina, her home state, to pursue a degree in international affairs. "It's actually how I came to insect farming -- through the lens of looking at food systems, how we're going to feed ourselves relative to climate change," she says. Given Colorado's culinary and natural food scene, McGill looked around to see who in the state had already ventured into the field. When she discovered there wasn't anyone else, McGill decided to fill the void. "I just felt this would be a really hospitable place for a farm," she says.
It has been. "Every year, revenue's grown on average seven times," says McGill. "I can sell everything that we've raised through the year, even with expansion." The business is approaching $100,000 in total sales.
But does the FDA approve of all this? Referencing a letter of advisement from that agency, McGill notes, "Insects can be considered to be food when raised for food -- so don't divert them from live feeders at PetSmart." McGill has obtained regulatory compliance from health departments in Colorado and Arizona.
McGill's business was also selected by New Mexico State University to participate in an accelerator program, resulting in funding and advice. "It's really gratifying to see a school that's a fairly traditional ag school start to look at insect farming," says McGill.
And McGill hopes to inspire more people -- young and old -- to incorporate insects into their diets.
"We've worked with Denver 4-H," says the micro livestock rancher. "They have a curriculum for insects -- and I would love to have a version of it that's raising insects for food."
Challenges: McGill can enumerate several: "We're a very early-stage company in a very early-stage industry, selling a product that people don't understand and they don't always want -- in fact, sometimes they want to run away from it.
"All of our challenges are standard, early-stage business challenges. Ag traditionally doesn't get a lot of funding. Woman-led startups are getting less funding. So, those are really a barrier to entry at the get-go. Sometimes the regulatory environment in terms of zoning, and things like that, can be a little tricky for urban agriculture."
Opportunities: McGill says, "I think early to market -- or even first to market, at least geographically -- there are a lot of opportunities for that, and I enjoy that space."
She's also found she enjoys the product-development aspect of it all. Creating items, like her Chirpy Jerky, that people want to try: "Food just has to taste good -- and maybe a little bit more so if it's bugs."
Needs: In addition to "access to capital," McGill will have to move RMMR in the next few months, so she cites "an affordable property" on her wish list. "I really want to stay in Denver, and the city has been supportive of that," she says. "And it's hard to find a property that costs less than say $2,500 a month for a couple thousand square feet."
She'd also like to find partners with the mechanical know-how to make her job easier, in terms of devising "conveyor belts, sifters, screens."