By Miriam Rixon
Matthew Burnham, manager of Trevecca’s urban farm, has the same morning routine everyday come rain or shine. He feeds the chickens shredded leafy greens and feeds the pigs big, round tomatoes and other vegetables they approve of. They are meticulous eaters and often turn their snout up to food that does not fit their sophisticated palate.
After feeding the animals, Burham moves on to collect the eggs the chickens have dutifully laid out for him, change the water he set out the previous day, and walk over to a big, white plastic bin sitting in the middle of the chicken yard.
The bin, covered by a wooden pallet, does not look all that interesting from the outside, but like every special thing, it is what is on the inside that matters. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of crawling maggots greet Burnham. These black soldier fly larvae are a nutritious, fatty, protein-packed and calcium-rich meal—not for Burnham, but for the farm’s chickens.
Black soldier flies are tiny, blueish- black, wasp-like insects that may look threatening, but pose no threat to people and are completely harmless because of their lack of a stinger. Their larvae, however, are extremely valuable to the farm.
“Soldier fly larvae are these amazing little creatures that burrow into, in our case, these little cardboard boxes that we’ve left on the top of their space,” said Jason Adkins, director of the Trevecca urban farm. “Their eggs hatch out and drop into this lovely pit of old food that is smelly and bad and we don’t like it, but they love it.”
The primary purpose of the black soldier fly larvae on the farm is to act as chicken feed that is both physically and mentally enriching.
“The chickens will leave their shining trough of $40 bag of chicken feed, and they will flock to the larvae,” said Burham. “I think that in itself says something about what a chicken needs in its diet and what they need to be happy as well. They love bugs. They’re animals and they eat grubs and bugs.”
Black soldier fly larvae as animal feed is not a novel idea, and neither is the concept of insect-based animal feed. Jiminy’s is a sustainable insect and plant- based dog food company that uses insect protein in their recipe. According to their online blog, black soldier fly larvae is an excellent superfood in a dog’s diet with a healthy blend of 54% crude protein, 19% polyunsaturated, 21% monosaturated fats and amino acids.
Insect farming is beneficial not only to dogs and chickens but people too. Insect farming takes up a lot less land than cattle farming all while producing larger amounts of usable protein and freeing up more land for growing produce. This extra produce is vital in the fight against hunger and food waste.
“We have a big food waste problem in our country,” said Adkins. “Apparently, there’s enough food waste in America to feed every hungry American 10 pounds of food a day, which is more than twice as much as the hungry folks need in this country.”
The black soldier flies on the farm help cut this waste by eating a portion of the food donated by the Nashville Rescue Mission.
“We get a donation from the Nashville Rescue Mission once or twice a week to feed mostly our pigs. But we kind of have to take what we get from them because it’s everything they would have needed to throw away anyway, so it’d all end up in a dumpster. They give it to us to repurpose, and we use probably a good 95% we receive from them,” said Burnham. “The soldier fly larvae eat all the foods that we can’t feed to the other animals.”
According to Burnham, black soldier flies’ diet at the Trevecca urban farm includes, but is not limited to, “cauliflower, artichokes, mushrooms and octopus.” The farm residents have a taste for the finer things in life.
The farm is not simply reclaiming unwanted food, but rather, they are upcycling it. By feeding this food to the worms and then feeding the worms to the chickens, they are increasing the nutritional value of the chickens’ feed.
This upcycling of food waste also has a positive impact on the planet.
“Instead of just a methane problem in the dump, which is what our food waste is,” said Adkins. “We either compost it, we feed it to animals, and then there’s less of a methane waste problem and that food is utilized.”
Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases. It is 25 times more harmful than carbon dioxide and is estimated to be the cause of one-fifth of man-made global warming, said Adkins.
“We catch about two to three thousand pounds of food a week, and every year we’re catching up to half a million pounds of yard waste, and we’re turning that back into the system. So instead of waste, that becomes an asset to the farm,” said Adkins.
This upcycling of food waste does not have to be limited to the farm. Burnham introduced a soldier fly bin to his home.
“Observing the larvae and the process of the larvae at Trevecca, I was like ‘why would I not start my own bin at my house?’”
“All I did was put some old food that I would have otherwise thrown away,” said Burnham. “I just started a pile with wood chips and a nice coffee sack on top, and sure enough, probably a week later it was crawling with larvae.”
It is that easy.
“One thing we really need to make sure of is to have something cover it because they like a warm, dry environment,” said Emma Farley, former student worker and volunteer at the farm. “Too much wetness will kind of cause there to be more house flies than there will be black soldier flies.”
A soldier fly bin is only as successful as its managed,, according to Adkins. The farm hopes to continue its mission of reducing food waste one step at a time.