#183 Pat Crowley, Founder & CEO of Chapul Farms
Pat Crowley is the founder and CEO of Chapul Farms, building and scaling modular insect farms. His diverse career path has had a singular focus of ensuring the food and water availability to future generations, with previous positions as a climate modeler, hydrologist, and agronomist in public and private sectors, and has more than 15 years working in the field of sustainable food and agriculture. He is founder of Chapul, LLC (2012), and introduced the first commercial edible insect protein on the US market. As CEO of Chapul Farms, he has helped integrate BSFL technology into operations for multiple Fortune 500 food/ag companies and some of the largest national and international waste management service providers, and regularly collaborates with the leading academic research institutions for insect food and agriculture development. Pat is Board Chair for the Industry Advisory Board for the National Science Foundation’s Center for Environmental Sustainability through Insect Agriculture.
Bigger Than Us #183
This transcript has been lightly edited.
Host Raj Daniels 00:38
Hello, and welcome to the Bigger Than Us podcast. I’m your host, Raj Daniels. Today I’d like to welcome back Pat Crowley. Pat Crowley is founder and CEO of Chapul Farms — building and scaling modular insect farms. His diverse career path has had a singular focus of ensuring the food and water availability to future generations with previous positions as a climate modeler, hydrologist and agronomist in public and private sectors, and has more than 15 years working in the field of sustainable food and agriculture. Pat, how are you doing today?
Pat Crowley 01:13
I’m doing great. Thanks so much for having me again, Raj
Host Raj Daniels 01:16
Pat, I am very excited to dig into his conversation. For those of you that remember Pat with Chapul Farms, we left off last year when we were speaking about black soldier fly. And we’re going to dig into more detail regarding the black soldier fly were Chapul is on this journey, and even discuss the market. So Pat, how’s the last year been for Chapul Farms?
Pat Crowley 01:37
It’s been wild. It’s been quite a journey. It’s been great. We’ve we’ve built a lot, and we built our team. I can’t believe how much has happened in just a year now since speaking with you a little over a year.
Host Raj Daniels 01:49
Well, I don’t know if it was you. But I’ve sure been thinking about insects a lot this year. I feel like every week, if not every month, I’m seeing new announcements regarding the changes and I’m not gonna say technology, but perhaps the idea of insects as consumption for animals and even potentially for humans. There’s been some talk about changes in the law overseas. Can you share what you’re seeing on your end regarding the market?
Pat Crowley 02:12
Yeah, absolutely. We’re seeing substantial milestones accomplished both on that regulatory side and the market side. For the past several years, they’ve been in the headlines from some of the larger market leaders in let’s say, aqua feed, black soldier fly go into several sectors, pet food, poultry, aqua feed. But just isolating the aqua feed, you have some of the larger aqua feed providers saying there’s just not enough feed to support the growth of aquaculture in their plans and insects happened to be one of the most promising alternative feeds. You’ve had that kind of looming, but now you’re seeing a lot more market players actually incorporating it into their feed. And we are at that balance of supply and demand at this point. And so it was always kind of speculated to be a supply driven market, which I think we’ve gotten there at this point.
Host Raj Daniels 03:05
And I think there was some talk about regulatory changes in Europe regarding black soldier fly or regarding insects specifically.
Pat Crowley 03:13
Yeah, very recently, there was some regulatory approval for the incorporation of insects, three insect species into human food. They have a little different regulatory pathway in the EU than we do here in the US. So that was a pretty monumental event. So now that will open up the market, where the technology and the companies have been at the at the starting line antsy for this moment, so I think we’ll see the edible insect market really grow in the EU and then translate over to the US at some point.
Host Raj Daniels 03:46
Which three insect species?
Pat Crowley 03:48
Crickets, mealworms, and grasshoppers have just been approved for human consumption.
Host Raj Daniels 03:52
So, excuse my ignorance. What’s the difference between grasshoppers and crickets?
Pat Crowley 03:58
They’re both Orthoptera. And then katydids are also Orthoptera. So they’re all a certain variety, but the difference is that grasshoppers fly, they’re a little longer body have broader wings, and they fly. Crickets, more hop, and they use their wings for chirping actually. Less flying than grasshoppers.
Host Raj Daniels 04:19
Now, the changes in the regulation in Europe regarding insect feed, is it because of their seeing issues with being able to feed the current population on the current farming or the current crops available?
Pat Crowley 04:33
There was a multifaceted rationale for it. From the human side, it makes sense for the human nutrition available in these products. So from that side, and then also on the environmental impact, yeah, that was a primary driver as well.
But it just kind of across the board makes sense from a watershed perspective. It’s not just the environmental footprint; it’s also the health benefits, and it’s also their ability to consume waste feedstocks that are headed to landfill. It’s this really multifaceted rationale for what is essentially more circular food product.
Host Raj Daniels 05:11
Now, I believe in my research, I found that you’ve been working on some innovation here locally in the US, too. Can you share what that is? What you’ve been working on?
Pat Crowley 05:20
Yeah, absolutely. It’s pretty exciting. We just launched the Center for Environmental Sustainability through insect farming. And so that’s a conceptual center that’s funded by the National Science Foundation, three research universities here at Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Indiana, Purdue, and then industry as well. Industry funded half of it and the National Science Foundation funded the other half for a multimillion dollar research center now. I think one of the one of the things I’m really excited about is the core mission is to advance the basic research around insect agriculture, because where we’re at is is heavily skewed towards applied research.
One of the directors of Texas A&M Dr. Jeff Thomas, he uses this metaphor that we’re in the dark, throwing darts at a dartboard with applied research, but we’re hitting the bull’s eye. It’s remarkable, you know, all the work that we’re doing investigating gut microbiome benefits, it’s working, but we still don’t have that underlying basic research to really advance and turn the lights on in the room, so we can start firing these darts out a little more strategically.
I like that it has that balance of, you know, longer term research focus, as well as industry needs. And what does the industry recognized as some of the biggest needs to really accelerate the growth of insect agriculture? The formation of the center really, is a as a key milestone to just breaking this industry open in terms of the research advancements, and all the different directions that we’re taking it.
So we’re looking at the feedstocks, which which waste streams, can we accomplish and address with insects, and then all the way down to the genetic expression of the insect via the diet that it eats and then all the way down to the frass, and the insect manure and microbial populations that can address some of the needs for more prolific life in our soil, for example.
But I think one of the most fascinating things that — we had our kickoff meeting — and the bow that ties around all the research, essentially, is this, concept of the interactome. I don’t know if that’s a new vocabulary word for you or not, but I’m enamored with it at this point. Basically you’re evaluating not just the inner the individual components of a diverse ecosystem, whether that’s a microbial ecosystem, whether that’s a larger mammalian ecosystem, the value in the interaction between those organisms and how they all interact with each other, and in that really quantification of how collaboration is is much more effective, often than competition from a kind of a in vitro based research approach where you’re looking at one organism via another organism. But you’re looking at in the complexity of this diverse ecosystem with multivariable interactions between all of it. So it’s endlessly fascinating.
Host Raj Daniels 08:38
I think it’s pretty incredible. And maybe just because it’s been on my horizon recently, or I’ve been thinking about a lot; I’m having more and more conversations about, I guess it would be systems thinking, taking a broader look, rather than a siloed approach about the, to your point interaction between some of these insects and the broader ecosystem. And I think that it’s much needed in many areas of life.
Pat Crowley 09:05
Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, the underlying conclusions of a lot of that is, more activity is often beneficial. So more diversity, more biodiversity, whether we’re talking about our soil, whether we’re talking about our gut health, you know, there’s kind of these conclusions that a lot of that research will take you to is that, in collaboration, know the value of it, you want more interactions, you want greater diversity, and so that’s at odds with the direction of, in our case, the agriculture that we’re targeting, but with same in health care in, in in food and food production.
That decrease in biodiversity has just enormous ramifications downstream, whether that’s human health, whether that’s planetary health, carbon in our atmosphere. It’s overwhelming.
Host Raj Daniels 09:54
Absolutely. Now, you mentioned you mentioned waste streams as feedstock. Can you give an example of what kinds of waste streams where those waste streams are going right now and the potential opportunity to divert them in the future?
Pat Crowley 10:07
Sure. So if you look at, let’s say beer production, you have the spent grains that come out. Those can sometimes go into cattle feed, but often you can’t transport that, because it’s really wet. It costs a lot of money to transport water. The solution for that is to feed it immediately to an animal or, or spend immense amount of energy to dry it out and then store it and then ship it. And so our model being let’s just consume it on site.
That first solution, feed it to animals immediately, come on site, in its wet form, don’t spend the energy to remove that moisture, but feed it directly to the insects in this case. Another example can be pre-consumer food waste. I say pre consumer, just from a regulatory standpoint. Post-consumer is is off limits in terms of feeding that to insects, but all of the the waste that you throw out in your home, you know that currently if you don’t have a composting system just goes to landfill.
Another one, there was a contest by a big pomegranate juice company. After they make the juice, they have all the press Pope’s so a lot of those press pulps are great feedstocks that are just underutilized. Or, in some parts of the world. Some of these these plant production byproducts that just aren’t edible, whether that’s from palm production, sunflower seeds, almond husks; these these are undervalued and sometimes burned or sent to landfill.
Host Raj Daniels 11:45
So am I hearing that there’s an opportunity to build a black soldier fly farm near a — let’s go back to the beer example — near a company that’s brewing beer?
Pat Crowley 11:59
Yeah, there’s there’s already models of that outside of the United States. Yep, co-locate with the beer. That’s our model is to co-locate with feedstock specific to Chapul. It just makes sense from an energy standpoint. So co locating with where these waste streams are, is is our model. But beer would be great from a cultural standpoint.
Host Raj Daniels 12:24
So Pat, we discussed the co-location of the potential farms. Can you share what you’re currently doing at your farm in McMinnville, Oregon?
Pat Crowley 12:32
Yeah, absolutely. That’s our our innovation center. And it was very deliberately co-located with the frass, if you will, the end product of the frass. And so we’re on 600-acre regenerative farm. That’s where our greenhouse and laboratory facility are for this innovation center.
The mandate of this particular farmer and landowner is to accelerate the growth of carbon sequestering quote unquote technologies or solutions for soil health. We’re alongside Dr. Elaine Ingham at the Soil Food Web and our frass products are going to go directly into that regenerative farm. We’re going to be doing farm trials for looking at the the benefit of these these life systems when added. So we’re bringing in multiple feedstocks into this innovation center for building, then co-located facility. And so looking at the wine industry, for example, where we’re in the heart of the Willamette Valley, so taking the the grape pumice from from making wine, the grape skins and feeding those to the larvae and then looking at what that does in the soil in a wine grape plant. And fostering that co-location and circularity, but really deliberately grounded at the farm level and at the soil level.
Host Raj Daniels 13:53
I’m excited to see what results you do find from the different feedstocks, it’s going to be interesting to see quote, unquote, which feedstocks become the most popular over time.
Pat Crowley 14:03
Yeah, that will. It’s a fun journey I’m willing to sign up for
Host Raj Daniels 14:10
Now, the last time we spoke, you went through the lifecycle of the black soldier fly, but I’m trying to understand. So you co-locate black soldier fly from near a beer producer, you would feed the waste from the production to the black soldier flies, what would happen then?
Pat Crowley 14:25
Yes, you feed that waste and we balanced that nutrition, kind of getting back to that that microbiology. Our systems are focused on creating really healthy populations and larvae. So we may do a one-step fermentation process to unlock some those nutrients that are in that beer waste. So that’s the first step. And that’s a one to two day process. And then you feed that to the larvae. We use a tray based system, so you you put that into the trays that you then add the larvae to and they consume it in under a two week timeframe.
So then in that tray, you’re left with two things; you’re left with the the larvae themselves, and then their frass, their manure, after eating this. That and heat energy are the three byproducts of that process. And so then the larva then go into animal feed markets right now. The frass goes into soil amendment markets. That gut microbiome of the insect has played that role in natural systems, and really is the foundation of healthy soil in a natural ecosystem. Insect frass is is a keystone variable in healthy functioning soil conditions. And so we’re trying to get that frass back into our agricultural landscape as well.
Host Raj Daniels 15:51
Now, you would ship the larva to the animals that need to be fed from a feedstock perspective. Can you give some idea of the quantity? Because I think when most people listen and think about black soldier fly, their mind just goes to, you know, a house fly, or whatever kind of flies they’re used to — but the number of flies that you’d have in a farm and just the quantity of larva, what that picture looks like? Can you paint a picture for us?
Pat Crowley 16:13
Yeah. Take an example facility. It can it can take in 150 tons of feedstock every day. So that’s about a 150,000 square foot farm. Indoor indoor farming is what we’re doing. So these trays are managed in a stacked trace system. So that’s a fairly large building.
And then the outputs of that are about 5,000 tons of the larvae per year, dried, if you do dry them out. And then 15,000–20,000, tons of the frass coming out. And so you take that 150 wet ton input, and you you drastically reduce it and concentrate it into these really high value premium products with a minimal amount of energy compared to other alternatives of food production.
When you’re using that waste, from a carbon and environmental stamp footprint standpoint, you’re looking at, you know, zero input, especially with the co-location
Host Raj Daniels 17:17
And what kind of animals is the larvae feedstock for?
Pat Crowley 17:20
Yeah, so you can go back to that natural ecosystem. What animals eat insects? Fish eat insects. It’s like 70% of a trout’s diet. Birds eat insects, so they work well in chicken diets. Humans evolved eating insects, they certainly work in human food as well. And then other mammals as well. And so the primary markets right now that are driving the industry are aqua feed, and pet food markets.
Aqua feed is over a $50 billion market in route to $75 billion by 2027. I think is the last numbers I saw. But the feed inputs for that growth are questionable. And so the industry is looking at alternative proteins that have less of an environmental impact. There was a recent article, and the Nature Conservancy called for a $200 billion investment to scale aquaculture with the number one priority being: scale alternative feeds that have minimal environmental impacts behind them. So that industry alone is really carrying the growth. But then here in the United States, we also just have regulatory approval for black soldier fly larvae in dog food. And so, the pet food markets, I always have to do a double take on them but pet is you know, over a $40 billion market and incredible environmental impacts associated with it as well. A lot of the major pet food companies are looking at black soldier fly as as carrying the torch in some in some regards of lowering their environmental footprint and their carbon footprint for each product launched.
So I would say, at this point, pet food and aqua feed are really driving our industries.
Host Raj Daniels 19:14
Going back to aquafeed for a moment. What are they currently using as their primary feed in aquaculture?
Pat Crowley 19:23
Fishmeal was is a staple ingredient in in aquaculture production. Fishmeal is usually produced by wild caught anchovy and herring out of the ocean. And so there’s certainly environmental impact associated with that, but then it’s also these are finite populations. And so the industry has been moving towards using less and less fishmeal and so that’s where, enter alternative proteins.
But as we’ve added these really low cost soy, for example, into the aqua feed we’re pursuing seeing the deleterious effects from an animal health perspective now. This kind of fascinating, we’re seeing increase in water quality in recirculating aquaculture systems. That’s a major growth category of aquaculture is how do we protect water by making a circular water system? But when you feed a trout, for example, or a salmon, something that it didn’t evolve eating, it didn’t evolve, eating heavily processed soy, so they they get sicker.
And so then add the other inputs that have negative impacts with water quality, the antibiotics and we’re seeing much healthier, the term is fecal integrity. So we’re healthier fecal integrity with insect base inputs. And so that’s gold from a water quality perspective.
Host Raj Daniels 21:00
That’s really interesting. So one of the things I’d like to touch on is, you know, Nexus is recent involvement with Chapul. Can you please shine some light on that?
Pat Crowley 21:51
Yeah, absolutely. You know, since our last conversation as we’ve been developing projects and taking on this project developer role for insect agriculture, there has been and the Nexus team were there as role models and advisors. But when I would have communication with the ecosystem, everyone always spoke so highly of Nexus. And kind of a recurring piece, of establishing a reputation for efficiency, authenticity, and execution, that you guys are getting a reputation for getting stuff done. And that’s really this critical need of our industry as well. So that’s what would was a good marriage for Chapul is having that deep expertise and infrastructure development, but also in new technologies that are newer, and we have to pioneer the space to some degree.
So it was just this perfect match from our end. And then we formalize the partnership and Nexus made an investment into Chapul. And I like one of the pillars of the investments that you all have made thus far, being the people behind them. And it’s been just absolutely fun working with all the Nexus team — highly competent individuals beyond their reputations. So it’s just been a fantastic match. And it was sort of seamless with the investment from our previous work that we’ve been doing together for project development.
Host Raj Daniels 23:26
Well, I think you really hit the nail on the head, when you mentioned pioneering, I do find the team here to be more pioneers than they are settlers. And I think that adventuring out into new technologies that you mentioned is something that’s in the DNA of Nexus. You mentioned also using new technologies. What kind of new technologies are you either implementing or attempting to implement in the farms?
Pat Crowley 23:48
We’re trying to make it as low risk of investment as possible. So we’re not implementing quote unquote, new technologies into our our farm system.
We’re trying to have them be as kind of a commercially demonstrated technology as possible, because the concept of insects are, are fairly new to a lot of investment from infrastructure capital. So it’s a it’s an easy one in terms of the the technology to manage these populations of larvae. We add some automation for efficiencies, and we have very cutting edge advancements in microclimate control systems.
But these are all proven technologies, and in where we’re focusing our efforts specific to the insects is really in the microbiology and again, it comes to the interactome. How does the microbiology of the feed inputs affect the growth of the larva? How does it affect the frass? How does that affect the plant health, and how does that affect the growth of carbon sequestering mycorrhiza? And from that full ecosystem perspective, we’re really diving into the the microbiology and less on mechanical technologies, if you will.
Host Raj Daniels 25:04
What kind of testing is being done, I guess on the insects and the byproducts, the frass, etc, that are revealing some of the answers regarding the microbiome?
Pat Crowley 25:15
This is really kind of the fun research. We’re starting to work with the Haney test for soil health. There seems to be a shift towards more biologic inputs into our soil as opposed to chemical based on especially fossil fuel derived chemical inputs. And as we’re unlocking the benefit of microbiology for plant growth and plant Agriculture, it comes back to that other theme of biodiversity. And so what various forms of bacteria or fungi can unlock the nutrients that already exist in the soil?
You can dump as many chemical inputs as you want. But if there’s no water, if there’s no other life to make that bioavailable to the plant, it doesn’t matter. And so it’s this tandem effort of how do you make these nutrients bioavailable to plants? And the answer is life, and lots of it in a diverse form. So a lot of the research that we’re doing is looking at how does the microbiology that comes from the gut microbiome of this insect that’s played this role over time, how does that then facilitate NPK uptake for plants? And then how does that make them more productive? And how does that reduce the immense cost of these chemical fertilizer inputs? So focusing on profitability of plant agriculture, as opposed to just yield growth.
Host Raj Daniels 26:48
Now, black soldier flies seem to be the hero of the day hero of the day. Is there a close runner up?
Pat Crowley 26:58
This is the pioneering. I hope in 10 years, it’s dozens of species of insects. But the next runner up is probably mealworms. In terms of how fast it’s scaling. They play a much different role, but synonymous they like a very dry feedstock. And so it’s easy to be collaborative, because we’re targeting different feedstocks, you know. But yeah, mealworms there’s a fantastic company up in Washington called Beta Hatch, I think you’ve actually spoken with Virginia, but they’re doing great things with mealworms. So yeah, that’s the next one.
Host Raj Daniels 27:35
What is a mealworm?
Pat Crowley 27:36
A mealworm is a larva to a beetle. And if you go to any PetSmart, or feed company, or pet food company, you’ll find bag of of dried mealworms. And you’ll can find them live for fish bait at most fish feed stores, but the vast majority of those dried ones come from overseas, and most of them from China. And raised on waste streams. And so that’s kind of a simple premise that we’re trying to make is, hey, we already have a market for these products. We have waste, why don’t we just connect the loop, more bioregionally?
Host Raj Daniels 28:18
Now, in our last interview, when you were when we were talking about crickets, you mentioned people curling their mouths when the idea of eating or consuming bugs or crickets. Have you seen that sentiment change this year?
Pat Crowley 28:33
I think so. Over the past two years, the curling of the lip usually comes from you’re in a place of comfort, to be able to exercise that. So I think people’s comfort zones were radically challenged over the last couple of years. And so that’s, that’s not the wildest thing people have heard or experienced or seen. So yeah, I think just the scale of the shock value has been altered.
Host Raj Daniels 29:11
I can understand that. I think people are you know, it’s the it’s the normalization of certain behaviors I guess over time.
Pat Crowley 29:18
Yeah, hopefully. We knew that going into it you know when we’re pioneering the market. It’s multiple impressions and multiple touchpoints. You can’t just tell somebody something once and convince them, especially when it comes to altering their diet. That that’s on the other end of needing multiple inputs. And so it takes you hearing it from your friend and then seeing it on Instagram and then seeing it in the store and then seeing maybe multiple products and then just kind of these recurring impressions and over time that can start to adjust your consumer behavior and your diet choices, but it’s not it’s not a quick and easy: here’s the marketing campaign that will work to launch at once. It’s an all-hands-on-deck kind of effort.
Host Raj Daniels 30:00
And along those lines, what’s some of the most interesting questions or reactions you received when you tell people that, you know, your CEO of Chapul and you’re raising black soldier flies on a farm?
Pat Crowley 30:13
Oh, that’s a big library, you’re asking me to sort through. Honestly, more and more people are getting really excited about it. And it’s taking less time to explain the benefits. I think people are coming around to the just the concept of circularity, or the need for soil health or the need to address food waste. We don’t have to sell the problem anymore, we can kind of sell just the solution. Whereas you still have to sell the problem, then sell the solution, which is much more time intensive.
So I think there’s an underlying just craving for a difference from business as usual. We know the food system is broken. We know these things. And there’s just this underlying groundswell that’s ready to explode, I think, for a lot more solution-based regenerative farming, throw your arrow at the terminology, permaculture, whatever that may be, people are ready to get behind things that that incorporate the bigger picture and long term planetary health and human health as contrary to a more extractive exploitative model of food production.
Host Raj Daniels 31:25
I would have to agree with that I’ve seen so much more, or so many more conversations this year, specifically, around you mentioned, circularity, regeneration. And so I feel that, you know, whether it’s the additional attention to climate change, or the recent infrastructure bill that includes climate change issues, but I think that the topic is becoming more and more popular. And so as you said, people are open to different or new ideas.
Pat Crowley 31:58
It’s one of those things that’s hard to quantify. We had this conversation recently with some industry professionals — actually it was at the research center. I think somebody had posed a question like, “Okay, we have all this this market data, and we have this consumer surveys, but how does that translate into behavior?” So it’s a gut feel almost that there’s a tipping of the tides, because we need to see that consumer behavior in droves at this point.
Host Raj Daniels 32:29
I agree. I agree. Well, speaking of tipping of the tides, and I asked you this question last time, but I’m going to re-ask the question. Let’s fast forward to 2030; Newsweek, Time, Fast Company, pick your publication, is going to write an article about Chapul Farms. What would you like the headline to read, or what impact would you like to have seen Chapul Farms have made?
Pat Crowley 32:53
So we internally we struggle with headlines just with today, because we’re doing so much, it’s so complex. And that’s that’s the nature of biodiversity. It’s hard to summarize it all. But I think that would be moonshot thinking, there’s no more food waste. That we’ve eliminated the concept of waste. It’s no longer in our vocabulary. So if I have to summarize it towards a headline, that would be it I guess.
Host Raj Daniels 33:21
I really appreciate that. I interviewed a gentleman. I believe it was last year, maybe the year before. And his position is, what if we start out a supply chain with the idea of no waste? And I think that’s a very, very interesting shift in thinking, right now we have waste because we accept it. But if we change our perspective to starting out with zero waste, what can we do? Or where could we end up?
Pat Crowley 33:46
I think that’s a that’s a key because then by its nature, you’d start moving away from linear systems, you start moving towards circularity. We have fantastic models. The term biomimicry, it’s just turn your head to the side and look at a natural ecosystem, that concept of waste doesn’t exist there. So how do we mimic that? Or how do we start interacting with it in more symbiotic way? How do we invite life forms and life systems back into our human civilization infrastructure, whether that’s food production, whether that’s waste management, whatever that is, let’s make peace with life around us.
Host Raj Daniels 34:26
I love the idea and I think it’s a great place to end let’s make peace with how do you make peace with life around us. I look forward to the partnership between Nexus and Chapul Farms and working with you and catching up with you again soon.
Pat Crowley 34:41
Thank you so much, Raj, always a pleasure.
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