The Cricketeer

“HEAR THAT? That’s a love song.” Gordon Vadis grins as he grabs an errant suitor and tosses it into a Rubbermaid container. “Only the boys sing. Four days after they reach sexual maturity, there’s a tonal change in their chirp. They go from ‘I’m over here’ to ‘Pick me! Pick me!’”

He’s surrounded by crickets. Rows of bins are stacked on racks in a huge, 18-foot-high, windowless room. Vadis, a balding bundle of energy and dimpled charm, expounds as he slip-slides on heated floors. Crickets eat anything—carpet, leaves, tennis shoes, each other—but here it’s 1,000 pounds of Purina cricket chow a week, plus carrot tops for their chewing pleasure. At 80-degree temps, they’ll mature in 49 days; at 91 degrees, only 35 days. Just-in-time manufacturing for the reptile set.

The Bug Company’s 35 employees, housed in a long, red building at the end of a gravel road in Ham Lake where agriculture meets suburbia, pack out roughly 4 million slow-grown crickets a week to consumers, zoos, universities, research centers, and pet stores. With newly acquired larger vats and improved distribution, Vadis hopes to achieve sales of $5 million next year.

But profit isn’t what entices this Christian existentialist, who spent seven years studying philosophy and theology before washing out as a minister (“They threw me in the water and I sank”) and joining his family’s bait business. Little did he know, as a 10-year-old trapping minnows, that this would become his life’s passion.

“I could speak to the head of a pin, but I wanted to carry the message further,” he says. “The big verbs are be, do, have. I spent my twenties on my knees, involved in being. But doing is more important. And money is only dirty paper.”

Vadis is especially proud of his BugBox!, an ingenious grab-and-go industry innovation inspired by a doughnut box in a convenience store. Its “edible insert with a tootsie pop center” keeps 25 to 50 crickets fed and watered for a week (three days is the norm). Enriched with food-fueled calcium carbonate to prevent reptile bone disease, and pigmentation additives to enhance reptile color, these “gut-loaded” crickets are six-legged supplements.

Most of this country’s 200 cricket farms are mom-and-pop shops in Cajun territory that get by on passed-along wisdom. Gordon and his wife, Sandy, run this feedlot—she keeps the books—but they aspire to jump ahead of the colony. The market is hungry, with 4.4 million U.S. households owning 11 million reptiles, not to mention hamsters, gerbils, and the like. With improved distribution and science, Vadis hopes eventually to claim 80 percent of the burgeoning market.

In a new office wing decorated with cricket, mealworm, and waxworm portraits and a “Beware of Attack Bug” sign, Vadis is moving forward with a “ready, fire, aim” approach and a belief in sinning boldly. He has succeeded in building a family and work life that inspires his own love song to the power of the universe.

“Newton had his gravity. Einstein had his relativity. I have my crickets,” he says. But watch out, locusts. You may be next. MM

Cathy Madison is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.