Jiminy! Cricket farms in US face crisis
Virus that wiped out cricket farms in Europe has American cricket-keepers worried. Zoos, theme parks, and reptile owners rely on the industry.
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
As a boy, Jack Armstrong watched his grandfather turn a love of fishing into America's first commercial cricket farm, growing and selling the insects as live bait.Skip to next paragraph
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Six decades later, the family owns two of the largest cricket farms in the country, in Georgia and Louisiana, shipping up to 17 million of the jumping critters each week to zoos, theme parks, and reptile owners.
At first glance, everything is chirping. But a virus has virtually wiped out the cricket-growing industry in Europe, and it's hopped the Atlantic, industry leaders say. Already, house crickets – the only species allowed for commercial sale in the United States – are in short supply, leaving buyers struggling to find enough.
"We've faced challenges over the years, but nothing like this," says Mr. Armstrong, manager of Armstrong's Cricket Farm in West Monroe, La. "This is the biggest crisis the industry has ever faced, and if we don't get a handle on it, many more growers are going to fall."
In June, Lucky Lure Cricket Farm, among the oldest and largest suppliers in Florida, was forced to close its doors. Owner Beth Payne believes that densovirus, as the malady is known, arrived in a shipment of infected worms from a farm in California.
Ms. Payne says she spent thousands of dollars cleaning and sterilizing the farm in an attempt to keep her business afloat. But when millions of crickets continued to die soon after hatching, leaving her unable to fulfill orders, and when debts approached $500,000, she had no alternative to declaring bankruptcy, she says.
The Leesburg farm, established in the 1950s as a small-time bait supplier, had grown so large that by this year it was a major provider of crickets as reptile food to theme parks, including Disney's Animal Kingdom, SeaWorld, and Busch Gardens.