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Denver bug farm dedicated to producing food for humans

Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch, Colorado’s first and only edible insect farm, is an operation inside a 40-foot shipping container along Morrison Road in southwest Denver. 

Entomophagy is the technical term for eating bugs, something an estimated 2 billion people around the world do regularly. Not because of an emergency or as a dare, but just as part of their diet.

“Insects were the first animals that humans ate,” said Wendy Lu McGill, the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch, Colorado’s first and only edible insect farm.

The operation is inside a 40-foot shipping container along Morrison Road in southwest Denver. They raise four species of edible insects:  crickets, mealworms, waxworms and tomato hornworms. All are native to Colorado.

You can see mealworms, tomato hornworms and cricket dishes in this... educational photo gallery.

“We don’t eat them in North America and Europe,” admits McGill. “But outside of Antarctica, we’re pretty much the outliers for not being bug eaters.”

McGill says she understands the difficulty a lot of people have when confronted with bugs in their food. She admits she has not yet converted her children.

“My kids are on a bug strike," she said. "They will not eat insects in any form, and any time I bake something they ask me before they put it in their mouth if it has insects or cricket powder in it.”

McGill has a bachelor’s in international affairs from the University of Colorado-Boulder and a master’s in international and intercultural communication from the University of Denver. She started the bug farm in 2015, after serving in the Peace Corps overseas.

“There are people who don’t have enough calories, and there are people who don’t have enough nutrition,” McGill said. “And then there are people who don’t have enough of both. And that is just fundamentally wrong.”

She says that is the core of her passion for being an insect farmer and trying to convert more people into being bug eaters.

“It’s a new thing, and to a lot of people it’s a really gross thing," she said. "And we totally... we get that.”

Still, restaurants and food manufacturers are starting to show interest. The Denver restaurant Linger is one of the first to take the leap.

“North America and the U.S. are pretty much the only culture and continent that doesn’t eat bugs in some form,” said Jeremy Kittelson, Culinary Director for the Edible Eats restaurant group. “So we thought it was natural with Linger again having the street food element and the globalness to try it here.”

Edible Beats operates several Denver restaurants, including Root Down, Ophelia’s, Root Down DIA, Vital Root and El Five, which opened its doors to the public for the first time this week. So far, only Linger serves bugs, but that may change.

“So yes, it is on the agenda to expand that program and get them into more of our restaurants,” said Kittelson.  “If you want to talk about true sustainability, this is the direction that you need to go in.”

Compared to other livestock, edible insects require far fewer resources to raise and are packed with nutrients.

“Crickets have as much calcium as milk by weight,” said McGill. “They have as much iron as spinach and broccoli, also by weight.  And then similar levels of B12 as salmon. So it’s just a really nutritionally-dense food.”

The Chief Operating Officer of Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch, Kyle Conrad, studied biology and entomology at Colorado State University, and also served in the Peace Corps overseas. He’s in charge of the husbandry and bug care side of the operation.

He says when the bugs are ready to harvest, they are killed the same way they die in nature: in the cold.

“They’re cold-blooded and they just slowly go to sleep and don’t wake up,” he said.

Conrad feeds the bugs with 75% to 90% food waste, such as used grains from breweries and distilleries or apple food waste from cideries.

Conrad says his favorite bugs are waxworms, a common pest for beekeepers.

“They are tasty," he said. "I have to stop myself from eating them while I’m taking care of them. They have a really delicious kind of creamy, nutty flavor.”

McGill favors mealworms.

“They are really nutty," she said. "They have a little more fat than crickets. And they’re good in desserts and on savory foods and are just really delicious I think.”

McGill estimates there are about 15 insect farms in North America dedicated to producing food for humans.  RMMR is the only one in the U.S. that is in a shipping container and the only one using food waste to feed the bugs.

It’s also one of the few operating in a large city.

RMMR is also one of six agricultural startups selected to participate in a new business-innovation program at New Mexico State University called AgSprint.

And McGill says when Amazon Fresh comes to Denver, people will be able to have bugs from the Ranch delivered to their home.

Some of the newsroom anchors were brave enough to try the dish. You can see their thoughts in the video below.