Tuesday, October 08, 2002

Cricket farm hopping to keep pet stores going

The Associated Press

        VISALIA, Calif. - As Jon Bassett sticks his hand in a 2-foot-by-4-foot bin filled with 100,000 chirping brown-and-white crickets, dozens bounce off his arm, elbow and hand.

        He grabs one without flinching.

        “As a child, I didn't have a choice - before school I had to feed and water the crickets. If we didn't do this, we couldn't eat,” he said. “It's like the same thing growing up on a dairy farm - you get up and help with the farm.”

        Cricket farming actually is more like raising chickens than cows.

        Mr. Bassett has temperature-controlled rooms and hundreds of grain feeders in bins where the insects' delicate eggs are harvested by the thousands.

        The Bassetts got into cricket farming in the 1960s, first selling them as bait to bass fishermen in northern California.

        When bass tournament purists felt too many fish were getting fat from eating crickets, the family focused on supplying the pet industry.

        “One of the best things that happened to us was the first Jurassic Park movie,” Mr. Bassett said of director Steven Spielberg's 1993 film about dinosaurs bred for an amusement park.

        “Everyone wanted a reptile.”

        Now, the Bassett Cricket Farm employs 21 people and supplies about 120 million crickets a year to pet stores to be fed to amphibians and reptiles.

        Reptile and amphibian product sales accounted for $381 million out of $5.9 billion in pet products sold last year.

        A big chunk of reptile products bought were food, according to a state-of-the-industry report in Pet Product News Buying Guide.

        The Bassetts are among about 60 insect farmers in the nation and one of a handful who raise crickets on a large scale and sell mealworms, known as golden grubs because of their wheat-yellow skin color.

        In the Bassett farm's concrete chambers, Mr. Bassett listens to the roaring chorus of crickets echoing throughout each chamber to make sure they're comfortable - if it's too hot, they'll chirp even more.

        The males make all the noise, rubbing their legs to attract females. They also issue a fighting chirp to warn other males.

        There are more than 2,400 species of crickets.

        The Bassetts breed the brown cricket, which can grow to an inch or two in length. Mr. Bassett said he likes the brown cricket because it grows bigger than the common black cricket often found behind household refrigerators.

        The crickets are fed a variety of grains to prepare them to be meals for snakes, spiders, turtles, lizards, frogs, fish and birds. In the wild, crickets feed on plants, animals and each other.

        Mr. Bassett loses some through cricket cannibalism, but year-round breeding makes up for the shortfall.

        John Shafer, owner of Whitie's Pets in Fresno, buys mealworms and about 3 million crickets a year from the Bassetts to feed his pets and sell to his customers.

        People in the reptile industry are unique, he said.

        “I think there's a stereotype of a person who has reptiles has piercings and tattoos,” he said.


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