Malcolm Diack is on a mission to capitalise on the growing worldwide edible insect market. His Otago-bred locusts, or ‘sky prawns’, may soon be coming to a restaurant near you.
They taste much like pork crackling or crispy chicken skin; are high in protein, vitamin B12, and have a very good Omega 3 to 6 ratio.
They’re excellent dipped in chocolate or candied, and can be stir-fried with vegetables for a healthier, protein-packed meal.
You may know them as migratory locusts. A name that goes down better in the food industry is ‘sky prawns’ – and for Dunedin-based Otago Locusts, New Zealand’s first and only food-grade insect farm, they represent a bright future.
Malcolm Diack is the owner and sole shareholder in Otago Locusts, and making a living from farming and selling migratory locusts has long been his passion.
Malcom has owned a commercial window cleaning business since 2003. He began his locust business as a shed-based hobby to feed his pet frogs and fish.
“I’ve owned a diverse range of pets and animals throughout my life, so my family and friends weren’t surprised when I revealed what was in my shed.” Specifically, some 15,000 locusts.
He decided to get serious and registered Otago Locusts as a company in May 2016.
“I realised I had a knack at farming them and began selling ‘juicy locusts’ as Otago locusts on Trade Me in late 2009, sending them live through the post.
“I had tried eating some small live ones and they tasted very good. Any visiting friends got to eat some too and they agreed they were surprisingly tasty. When cooked on a hot plate they turned out delicious.”
It was time to scale up the business and find a restaurant brave enough to put them on the menu. Unfortunately his marriage break-up put the brakes on the whole project for a few years until he got back on his feet.
“Thankfully, I still maintained a good population of locusts to keep the dream alive,” Malcolm recalls. “Then finding my new partner gave me the confidence to actively seek out a restaurant.”
He got talking to the executive chef and the owner of popular Dunedin restaurant Vault 21.
Although initially amused, they soon saw the potential, but required the product to be registered.
Malcolm duly approached the Ministry for Primary Industries. As a market pioneer, it understandably took a few months to work everything out together.
Certification came through on the morning of 13 May.
“That afternoon I dropped off the first batch to Vault 21 with TV cameras and newspapers ready to greet me. We were on Newshub that night and in the paper the next day.
“I came up with sky prawns as a more agreeable name for locusts – primarily to encourage public acceptance.”
Managing a locust business has not been without its challenges, particularly around breeding and sending live product around the country, and around pricing.
“A few packages were opened for inspection after confusion about the strange sounds coming from the courier bag,” says Malcolm. “Most genuine customers find the arrival of live jumping insects very exciting and a great conversation starter.”
Marketing on a shoestring budget has also been a challenge, he says, but the business is slowly building a reputation through social media.
“And we’re planning greater impact advertising for the future.”
The perfect swarm
Farming locusts for human consumption is relatively rare worldwide, but it helps to have a superior product. Malcolm’s confident he has. He describes his sky prawns as “big, healthy and happy” – much better than the imported competition (domestic crickets from Thailand and Canada) which have a less desirable “earthy taste”.
“Our locusts are also grass-fed and have superior nutritional content. Sky prawns are considered by some to be a superfood,” explains Malcolm.
The edible insect market is growing overseas, where it gains a lot of investment.
“Insect protein is earmarked to be the next big thing and we’re well placed to contribute if we can scale up to meet export expectations,” explains Malcolm.
“We’ll be making locust powder or flour in the near future as this is what consumers really want. Insect powders are high in protein and can be used in a variety of ways, from protein drinks and supplements, to baked goods and pizza bases.
“Experiments with our locust flour indicate it can be substituted at a higher percentage, compared to cricket flour, without tainting the flavour of baked goods.”
While some people are not attracted to sky prawns, the ones that do try them are impressed.
“Nobody trusts me when I say my locusts are delicious,” says Malcolm – adding that any newcomers to his front door are nowadays greeted with a plate of lightly salted sky prawns before admission.
Otago locusts are nevertheless catching on. The plan is to quickly move into the production of locust powder/flour for national distribution. Malcolm says people are impatiently waiting for the product.
“Once we’ve reached our limit in New Zealand we will look to export to Europe, the US, Australia and possibly Asia. All going well this should happen in well under five years’ time.
“We have plans to incorporate locust flour into various foods to add nutritional value. There are likely other markets I’ve not yet considered. I’m constantly meeting people with new ideas for my locusts.”
He says the locust farm will always be environmentally friendly.
“We consume zero water, capturing water from the atmosphere in the shed and recycling it.
“Looking forward, we plan to have no greenhouse gases expelled from our facilities.
“We practice circular sustainability with our farm’s waste stream by using it to fertilise the feed crops and we may
even begin selling this very fertile user-friendly ‘frass’ (insect manure).
“In time we hope to have a facility running exclusively on renewable energy.”