There are no gargantuan mastiffs or shepherds on quad bikes watching over the hundreds of thousands of newborn animals that tumble and crawl around an unlikely farm among the wind turbines, motorways and patchwork fields of this corner of Castilla-La Mancha, in central Spain.
Nor are there any fences to pen them in. Plastic tubs, shelves and the insulated walls of a unit on a windswept industrial estate do the job perfectly well. But whatever Origen Farms lacks in land, tradition and rural romance, it aims to make up for in innovation, enthusiasm and resilience.
Founded almost two years ago, the business rears a single beast: Acheta domesticus, the house cricket.
The farm is one of a growing number of companies in Europe and elsewhere seizing on the protein possibilities of insects. But while others focus on growing insects for pet food or animal feed, the Spanish startup has its antennae trained on the human market.
Over the course of each 35-day cycle, the farm produces three tonnes of crickets – 80% of which are ground into protein-rich flour for culinary use, including pasta, snackbars and crackers.
Some of the 250,000 young insects being grown in the 30C (86F) breeding room will be mixed with imported Mexican corn and reincarnated as tortillas or totopos (tortilla chips), seasoned with sesame or chipotle. Others will be dried and packaged as snacks, while the remainder will be frozen and shipped as animal feed.
The venture, based on the outskirts of the town of La Roda, near the city of Albacete, is the brainchild of three local childhood friends now in their early 30s: Andres Garcia de Lis, Francisco Jose Tebar and Jose Antonio Torres.
“We were looking to start a business that was sustainable and profitable,” says Garcia de Lis. “We looked at various things, from spirulina to other kinds of insects, but we ended up going for crickets for human consumption because it’s a young market which could be profitable.”
Their model is built around the humble cricket and its habitually overlooked nutritional benefits. As well as being up to 70% protein, the animals contain iron, zinc, calcium and amino acids.
And yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, some in the town – whose economy depends mainly on traditional forms of agriculture, as well as paint manufacturing and other industries – questioned the wisdom of the enterprise.
“A lot of people have seen the potential in this; others have said we’re mad,” says Garcia de Lis. “Our families love us very much, but they must also have wondered if we’re mad. But we got the money together.”
Their initial investment of EUR15,000 (GBP13,000) each, supplemented by bank loans and grants, funded the climate-controlled industrial unit, with its breeding room, nursery and large, ever-so-slightly Cronenbergian growing space, where 300 tubs house the crickets as they grow to their full size of a little more than 2cm, fed on a diet of cereal, vegetables and the gentle and carefully calibrated drips of the irrigation system.
The final stop on the insects’ journey is the refrigeration room, where the freezing temperature ensures what Garcia de Lis calls una muerte dulce: a sweet death.