LANCASTER — The farms surrounding Elaine Henderson's little plot on a hillside in Garrard County raise cattle, sheep, goats, chickens and horses, but Henderson has a decidedly smaller herd — of crickets.
Each week, Henderson Cricket Farm ships tens of thousands of live crickets to pet stores, bait shops, individuals and the Louisville Zoo.
"I'm selling all I can grow," Elaine Henderson said. "I've turned customers away."
Henderson and her late husband, Leroy Henderson, operated a cricket farm together on Lake Okeechobee in Florida for about 30 years.
She said she and her husband started the business as a means of getting out of their factory jobs in Fort Lauderdale.
"My husband wanted to grow frogs," she said.
After they got set up for breeding frogs, they went to a worm farm and asked what other sources of food they might get for their amphibious crop. The owner suggested that the couple grow crickets, and he offered to buy all they could grow, Henderson said.
In Florida, the crickets were mainly sold for bait, and the couple eventually had six employees.
"The last year we were in business, we sold 59 million crickets," Elaine Henderson said.
They moved to Kentucky five years ago to be near Leroy Henderson's brother, and a year later started raising crickets again.
"It's just been snowballing since then," Elaine Henderson said.
Last year, she said, the farm brought in $80,000 in gross revenues; profit was $27,500.
But Leroy Henderson died four months ago, and Elaine Henderson, 75, said she's now ready to move on to a new chapter in her life.
She recently began working with a real estate agent to try to sell the business so that can move to Texas to be near her daughter and grandchildren.
The cycle of work is never-ending.
Three times a week, Henderson puts metal baking pans filled with peat moss into a breeder bin.
The female crickets lay eggs in the damp peat, and then Henderson moves the pan into one of 27 large blue plastic totes in "the nursery." Eleven days later, the baby crickets hatch.
Double-sided tape placed around the rims of the totes keep the hatchlings from crawling out, and Henderson keeps egg crates stacked in the totes to give them plenty of surfaces to move around on.
"They have to have crawl space or they'll pile up," she said. "They're a creature that if they feel crowded, they die out."
Henderson keeps the nursery a toasty 93 degrees.
"Just like normal babies, they have to be warm," she said.
On the coldest days of winter, she gets up as early as 4 a.m. to put logs into the outdoor wood stove she uses to heat the building where she raises the crickets with the help of one part-time employee.
She has backup heat from electric and propane sources "just in case something bad happens," Henderson said.
The new crickets stay in the nursery for two weeks, then move into the "grow room," which is kept only slightly cooler, at 87 degrees.
There, they go into 27 larger plywood bins, each containing 35,000 to 40,000 crickets.
While the nursery is silent, since young crickets can't chirp, the grow room features a never-ending chorus of chirping, which Henderson says comes only from the males.
Henderson ships the crickets at varying stages of growth, up until they are about 5½ weeks old.
While she said the business is not "hard work," she said it does require a lot of dedication.
"It's like having millions of children," she said. "Somebody's got to feed and water them every day."
Reach Karla Ward at (859) 231-3314 or 1-800-950-6397 Ext. 3314.