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Chirper by the dozen

Sound of singing crickets is sweet music for Lester Elkins, who’s been growing, shipping these insects for more than 50 years
Story and photos by Chris Villines 2/1/2013

 

Lester Elkins, right, gives Southeastern Farmers Cooperative outside salesman Bob Davis a look inside one of the many boxes of crickets housed at his business, Elkins Cricket Farm, in Charleston. Lester established the insect breeding operation in 1960 as a means of stocking bait shops and pet stores in Tennessee and neighboring states.
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Occupying six buildings resembling chicken houses at Lester Elkins’ farm in Charleston are what’s enough to make an entomophobiac — someone who’s terrified of insects — go stark-raving mad.

Crickets. Millions of them.

But never fear. Not a single one of the critters is to be found in plain sight, even though their unmistakable chirping echoes inside the shelved rows of cardboard boxes where they’re being kept. And, unlike the repulsive image that comes to mind with a large group of insects sharing the same space, the houses are practically eat-off-the-floor clean.

This long-established Bradley County enterprise, Elkins Cricket Farm, annually raises and sells more than 100 million Australian gray house crickets, each destined to be irresistible fare for fish and reptile pets. Headed up by Lester and wife Maxine and now boasting eight full-time employees, the unusual business was born from a supply-versus-demand frustration that Lester experienced as a youngster.

 “Growing up in this area, my family lived close to a creek, and we’d catch these black field crickets to fish with,” explains the affable, energetic 75-year-old. “It was the best bait going … the fish would bite them when they wouldn’t bite a grasshopper. But by midsummer, you couldn’t find crickets to catch anymore because we’d used them all up. Eventually, I got the idea that maybe I could raise crickets to where they wouldn’t run out, and that’s how I got started.”

Lester has dedicated nearly every day of the past 52 years to growing and studying the tiny creatures, each of which has a lifespan of only about 90 days. He’s become one of the country’s most successful breeders in the process.

Each week, some 4 million crickets are packaged — 1,000 per box — and delivered or shipped to wholesalers, bait shops, and pet stores, mostly within a 400-mile radius of the farm. Another 4 million are hatched every week to help replenish the depleted inventory.

The stock is divided by size into 54-by-24-by-16-inch open cardboard boxes during production; double-sided tape is placed around the edges of each box to keep the crickets from crawling out.

 “At capacity, we’ll have about 20 million crickets on hand,” says Lester. “We raise them at 90 degrees, which is just the right temperature for them to take off and grow. They lay their eggs in damp peat moss — one cricket will lay approximately 150 eggs, and then four days later she’ll lay another 125. It takes an egg about 10 days to hatch, and then it takes 40 days for the cricket to grow into an adult. That’s the point when we ship them out.”

The mere fact that Elkins Cricket Farm is going strong when a multitude of other operations around the U.S. have shuttered their doors is a testament to Lester’s perseverance. A quick-spreading, aggressive virus called the densovirus has wreaked havoc and wiped out entire cricket colonies at farm after farm.

“I can sit here and name 30 to 40 breeders who have gone out of business in the last 12 years from the densovirus,” says Lester. “There’s only a few of us left in the country. It’s just been a killer.”

Seeing so many fellow producers fall by the wayside, Maxine says her husband’s “drive and determination” wouldn’t let him suffer the same fate.

“Don’t tell Lester that he can’t do something,” says Maxine, who runs the office and takes order calls from customers. “He’ll do everything he can to prove you wrong.”

Elkins Cricket Farm has had its battles with the densovirus in the past, but through Lester’s own dogged daily research, a willingness to educate himself, and a dedication to keeping the facilities “clean, clean, and then more clean,” his crickets have been disease-free “since 1980.”

“Just like a doctor sees his patients every day, I practice on my bugs every day,” he says. “When I was 36 years old, I started studying microbiology and learned about the densovirus. I finally figured out how to stop it, and we haven’t had any problems since. But even now, day or night, I’m always looking under a microscope at something to stay ahead of the game on bacteria control and viruses. You have to take preventive measures to keep them out.”

Lester won’t divulge what he discovered to stop the densovirus — cricket farmers are notorious for being tight-lipped so they don’t give away any trade secrets. Other aspects of his business — the nutritional program, for example — aren’t so secretive. As part of his never-ending research, Lester spent countless hours and concocted some 200 feed formulas along the way before working with Tennessee Farmers Cooperative nutritionists to develop the product that now bears his name: Co-op 18% Elkins Cricket Feed. With millions of hungry little hoppers to take care of, Lester says he’ll go through as much as six tons of the feed a week. By way of comparison, that’s as much as a 50-head dairy feeds its cows weekly.

“It took me 10 years to get the formula to where I wanted it,” says Lester, who buys his feed, cleaning bleach, and other supplies for the farm through Southeastern Farmers Cooperative in Cleveland. “I would call [former TFC nutritionist] John Niver, and he would be very helpful along the way. Everything had to balance out just right because crickets are very sensitive creatures. It’s not what’s in their feed that’s important — it’s what’s not in it. You can take that to the bank.”

With a combination of grain, plant protein, animal protein, forage products, salt, vitamins, and 18-percent crude protein, Elkins Cricket Feed has the complete package to make it the sole ration needed for these insects.

“Generally, the smaller the animal, the faster the metabolism and the more at risk for illness they are,” says Dr. Paul Davis, TFC nutritionist. “Anything that goes against the norm with cricket feed, whether it’s too much protein or some type of residue, can prove detrimental. It’s an honor that Lester thinks enough of the procedures and cleanliness in place at TFC’s feed mills to entrust us with manufacturing the feed he formulated.”

Lester, who stores the feed in three large bins at the farm, says Elkins Cricket Feed helps make a discernable difference in the quality of the crickets his farm produces.

“I’ve talked to many of our customers who say our crickets look so much better and stay so much healthier than those they were getting before us,” he points out. “Just like you and I can get in bad health by having too much salt or fat in our food, crickets can suffer by having too much protein or too many vitamins.”

Having a source of clean, fresh water for the developing bugs is also vital during the production process. Tiring of the chore of filling and washing quart jars every day, Lester developed an automatic watering system 14 years ago that ensures the crickets have a 24/7 supply.

“That’s been great for us,” he says. “It’s made out of regular old chicken waterers and modified. I put plastic lines to it and a reduction valve with 7.5 pounds of pressure. It’s been worth every dime. Man, I love it.”

It’s this type of enthusiasm, combined with Lester’s endless quest to raise a quality supply of crickets, that customers such as Buddy Poindexter of Poindexter’s Bait Company in Gallatin find so appealing.

“It takes a special kind of person to do what Lester does,” says Buddy, who has been buying from Elkins Cricket Farm since the early 1990s. “It’s a full-time job for him just working to keep diseases out, but he stays after it. He and Maxine are some of the best friends we have in the bait business. We’ll buy from them as long as they want to sell them.”

Which, for a workaholic like Lester, is a period of time with no set expiration date.

“Night and day, I’m out here foolin’ with these crickets, and I enjoy it a lot,” says Lester. “Most people want to destroy them. Heck, I want to keep them alive!”

 
 
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