Farm aid, us­ing left­overs and lar­vae

GrubTubs gives eatery left­overs to grubs that be­come chicken feed.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - BUSINESS SUNDAY - By Rachel Rice rrice@ac­n­news­pa­pers.com

When Robert Olivier looks at a hand­ful of squirm­ing, fat fly lar­vae, or grubs, he sees the so­lu­tion to two of Austin’s prob­lems.

The prob­lem for restau­rant and gro­cery store op­er­a­tors is a steady stream of food waste, and a loom­ing dead­line. The city of Austin will re­quire all food-re­lated busi­nesses to have or­ganic di­ver­sion pro­grams by Oct. 1.

The prob­lem for lo­cal chicken farm­ers is the high cost and low re­turn on keep­ing chick­ens and sell­ing eggs. A large per­cent­age of farm­ers’ cost is chicken feed, and they don’t make much per dozen eggs sold.

En­ter Olivier, the grubs — and his Austin-based startup GrubTubs.

Olivier says he has de­vised a way to pro­vide grubs to farm­ers at a lower cost than or­ganic soy feed — and to do so by plug­ging into Austin’s grow­ing de­mand for com­post­ing busi­nesses.

Black sol­dier fly larva will eat any type of food scraps, and they’re high in pro­tein. Not to men­tion they’re de­li­cious, at least as far as chick­ens are con­cerned.

Grub Tubs breeds the black sol­dier flies, and then the re­sult­ing grubs gorge them­selves on food waste pro­vided by Garaj Ma­hal and Le Poli­tique, two Austin restau­rants par­tic­i­pat­ing in the GrubTubs pi­lot pro­gram.

Like a con­ven­tional com­post­ing ser­vice, the restau­rants pay to have GrubTubs pick up their food waste. GrubTubs pro­vides seal­able tubs to restau­rants, and picks them up at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals.

Olivier said he hopes to ex­pand ser­vice to 1,000 restau­rants within the next year.

“If farm­ers can make their own feed, not with plants, but with in­sects ... they can make a liv­ing again,” Oliver said. “How do you create eggs in two short steps? You col­lect food, let it be eaten by in­sects, and let the chick­ens eat the in­sects so we can eat their eggs. It’s a much cheaper bi­o­log­i­cal path­way.”

Nora Cho­vanec, di­rec­tor of mar­ket­ing for Austin-based Texas Farm­ers Mar­ket, agreed with that as­sess­ment.

“Feed is def­i­nitely dif­fi­cult when it comes to sell­ing eggs,” Cho­vanec said. “Or­ganic feed is very ex­pen­sive, and then kind of the next step down from that is to use a nonGMO feed, which is sig­nif­i­cantly cheaper but still ex­pen­sive. It’s very hard for small or medium farm­ers to turn a large profit on pas­ture-raised free-range chick­ens on or­ganic or non-GMO feed.”

Le Poli­tique ex­ec­u­tive chef Derek Salkin said his staff has placed tubs from GrubTubs at

sev­eral spots in the restau­rant’s kitchen — near the prep sta­tion, at the cof­fee bar, the raw bar, the back bar.

“We are now very starkly aware of how much food waste we go through,” Salkin said. “Whereas be­fore, it was easy to just for­get how much gets put in the garbage be­cause we had 55-gal­lon trash cans ... and also, just on a very ba­sic level, it elim­i­nated any smell in the her­met­i­cally sealed con­tain­ers.”

Olivier and the GrubTubs team bought acreage out­side of Buda for a farm where they can raise grubs and test and re­fine their busi­ness model. Olivier and the GrubTubs pitch team won the city of Austin’s 2016 Re­verse Pitch com­pe­ti­tion, earn­ing a $10,000 grant, and then landed a $360,000 grant through the WeWork Cre­ator Awards.

Olivier said the rais­ing of grubs can be half the cost of buy­ing or­ganic chicken feed for a farmer, and also comes at less cost to the en­vi­ron­ment.

Two 10-foot-by-6-foot “bio pods” full of food waste fed to grubs could create enough feed to grow the same amount of pro­tein as an acre of soy, Olivier said.

The com­pany is work­ing with a lo­cal farmer to breed Delaware chick­ens, which Olivier said take longer to grow, but their meat tastes bet­ter than your av­er­age hen. On a diet of grubs, the GrubTubs team hopes it proves prof­itable to pro­duce bet­ter poul­try.

“That’s why we’re ex­cited to have a chicken part­ner — we’re find­ing a way to grow this busi­ness in a way he’s al­ways wanted to do and that he couldn’t fig­ure out how to out­side of Austin,” said Ash­ley King, who for­merly worked as a busi­ness man­ager with Hon­est Com­pany and cre­ated Dysh App, has come on board as GrubTubs’ chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer. “So it’s par­tially the feed (costs), be­cause these chick­ens have to be alive a lot longer. We’re also mak­ing sure he gets con­nec­tions with a chef.”

Olivier is not the first per­son to think of grow­ing grubs to create chicken feed, but the FDA has not yet ap­proved in­sect-based feed for chick­ens and pigs. Grub Tubs would func­tion by sell­ing the sys­tem it­self — they would pro­vide farm­ers with food waste from restau­rants and grub hatch­lings they can feed them­selves, with the nec­es­sary equip­ment sold or leased to the farm­ers by GrubTubs.

“If I pro­vide the eggs, one 50-mil­li­liter vial will be­come a 25-kilo­gram bag of feed,” Olivier said.

“We could ship that any­where as long as the farmer is close to a city and there are GrubTubs (food waste tubs) be­ing pro­vided in that lo­ca­tion,” he added.

The busi­ness model works best for farm­ers liv­ing near a city that has a high de­mand for food waste re­moval ser­vices. Which is why, Olivier said, GrubTubs is in the per­fect city to get its model off the ground.

“Austin is re­ally a mecca when it comes to pro­gres­sive pol­icy,” Olivier said, “and then another rea­son that you kind of love Austin is be­cause it’s got a food cul­ture that cel­e­brates ev­ery­thing from pulled pork to lo­cal eggs. It opens the en­tire abil­ity to come and do some­thing in­no­va­tive.”

DUSTIN SAFRANEK / FOR AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Robert Olivier, founder and CEO of GrubTubs, holds a hand­ful of grubs that were raised in­side “love bub­bles,” gorg­ing on left­overs from lo­cal restau­rants. The grubs are then fed to chick­ens and pigs, cut­ting farm­ers’ feed ex­pense.

PHO­TOS BY DUSTIN SAFRANEK / FOR AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

GrubTubs also has a hy­dro­pon­ics sys­tem in which crops such as let­tuce are grown.

Chick­ens feed on the grubs raised by GrubTubs, re­plac­ing the usual plant feed with what Olivier calls a “much cheaper bi­o­log­i­cal path­way.”

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