Originally created 03/28/04

Farmer sells millions of the bugs yearly



EDITOR'S NOTE: Under the Radar is an occasional Sunday series spotlighting successful entrepreneurs whose business ventures often go unnoticed.

Most boys play with bugs at some point in their lives. Then they discover girls.

Clay Ghann has been married for years, and he's still playing.

Each year, the owner of Ghann's Cricket Farm sells 150 million crickets, which primarily end up on fishing hooks and in pet stores as reptile and bird food.

The farm was opened in the early 1950s by his father, Aubrey Ghann, an avid fisherman and welder. The elder Mr. Ghann was helping build Thurmond Dam when he realized the new lake behind it would bring more fisherman to the area. He quit his job to start raising crickets for bait.

After his son finished college in the early 1980s, he bought the business. Since then, the farm has tripled its production.

"I'm just trying to keep the business going and improve upon the processes my dad developed through the years," Clay Ghann said. Much of the growth has come from the pet-food market. The cricket farm, which was once devoted solely to growing bait, now raises crickets in nine sizes.

"The pet market is a lot more difficult than the fishing market, with all the different sizes," he said, adding that fishermen generally want the biggest crickets they can get.

Mr. Ghann takes credit for introducing PetsMart, the country's largest pet store, to the live-bait business. PetsMart is no longer Mr. Ghann's customer, but plenty of independent pet stores are, and that has given rise to an expanded product line.

Last year, Mr. Ghann started breeding mealworms, a type of beetle larvae often fed to birds. They represent the farm's first departure from crickets in its half-century history.

The variety of products is necessary if Ghann's wants to remain competitive. Greater competition from backyard cricket farmers and heightened focus on the pet-food market is cutting Mr. Ghann's already slim profit margins - crickets sell for 1 to 1.5 cents each.

"This isn't as easy as it once was," Mr. Ghann said. "In the last five or six years, fish-bait producers have discovered the pet-food market, so prices have been driven down."

The competition has forced Mr. Ghann to look for other markets.

In addition to the live bait, he sells freeze-dried crickets, called Crunchy Crickets, cricket food and Cricketade, a water-gel for live crickets to drink. The business also sells pet stores and bait shops supplies for storing, maintaining and retailing crickets.

Mr. Ghann is looking to get into the fertilizer business, too. Cricket litter is high in nitrogen and considered one of the better fertilizers. During fishing season (April to September), the crickets eat 7 to 8 tons of feed each week, creating 5 to 6 tons of waste.

"The litter is something we haven't paid a lot of attention to over the years because the crickets were our main market, but we're sort of beginning to realize we have a market there as well," Mr. Ghann said.

The litter is sold by the truckload, but he said he plans to package it and sell it on a smaller scale to gardeners and horticulturists.

Though his name is on the door, Mr. Ghann said he can't take credit for all the success. With 20 to 25 workers, depending on the season, he attributes much of the profitability to them.

"Most people count sheep. I go to sleep counting crickets," said Cornelius Young, a 28-year employee.

Mr. Ghann is the sole owner, but the farm is still a family affair. His wife, Cathy, is the accountant and chief financial officer, and his sister Fonda is the farm's general manager. Both of Mr. Ghann's teenage sons work there during the summer.

All his success and the massive number of crickets grown each year begs the question, though: How does he get them to mate?

"That's God's process," he said. "We just monitor it and help it along."

VITALSNAME: Clay Ghann

BORN: Nov. 11, 1958

FAMILY: Married to Cathy; two sons

TITLE: Owner, Ghannís Cricket Farm

HISTORY: Mr. Ghann bought his fatherís cricket farm business after graduating from Georgia Southern University in the early 1980s. Since then, the output has tripled.

Reach James Gallagher at (706) 823-3227 or james.gallagher@augustachronicle.com.