I would never have picked this one for a definitive assignment to define a five-year deployment in China.
But in the depths of a cavernous array of narrow corridors and shelves, I stand in the dark, sweating profusely as silence fills the sound of millions of cockroaches eating like rain.
It’s a calming atmosphere that would go well for a soothing sleep app.
Everything else about the situation is probably keeping people awake.
Around me on the walls, ceiling and floors, cockroaches big and small scurry quickly, scattering as photographer Steve Wang shines his camera at it.
This is a large-scale cockroach nest: four industrial-size barns filled with rows and an advanced piping system that pumps food waste collected from restaurants onto the shelves for cockroaches to eat.
The lights are off, the temperature is kept in the 1920s and the humidity is stifling.
“Every day they can eat 50 tons of kitchen waste.”
Cockroach farms are common in China
The project in Zhangqiubei, near the eastern city of Jinan, differs from most other cockroach farms in China.
While a huge facility in the southwest run by a company called ‘Good Doctor’ grinds billions of cockroaches every year for use in Chinese medicine, this project is mainly using them to feed animals.
“If we can grow crickets on a large scale, we can provide the protein that benefits the entire ecological cycle,” says Li Yanrong, project leader.
“We can replace animal feeds full of antibiotics and instead provide organic feed, which is good for the animals and the soil of the land.”
What began as an experiment in dealing with food waste has turned into a commercial operation, although Mr. Lee admits it’s still early days and it’s unclear whether it will be profitable in the long run.
But the sprawling fields around the cricket farm already have pigs, ducks, chickens and goats feeding on the nutrient-rich cockroach mix.
The trench is filled around every relationship with a predatory fish hooked on cockroach bait.
It helps ensure that a billion or so cockroaches do not erupt indoors and wreak havoc on neighboring fields.
Cockroaches are not just household pests
Largely seen as a pest that must be eradicated elsewhere, cockroaches are a profitable one for an estimated 100 cockroach farmers across China.
The crushed cockroaches with their scientific name Periplaneta Americana are listed as ingredients in various types of Chinese medicines and some medicinal cosmetics.
They are said to be mainly beneficial in helping heal scars, while some people eat or drink mashed cockroach medicines which, according to the manufacturers at least, can help reduce the size of bunions.
In some parts of China, insects are also eaten though they are scarce, and Mr. Li told me that he personally does not cook them, despite their feeding.
It comes as a relief as he offers us lunch at Zhangqiubei Farm: pork, chicken and fish that are all raised on the nutrient-rich cricket feed.
Additionally, as is customary for guests visiting Shandong, there is plenty of beer to wash completely.
Mr Li is aware of the agricultural conditions in Australia and realizes that food waste in Australia largely ends up in landfill.
More than 5 million tons every year, according to Australian government figures.
It is believed that the cultivation process of giving food waste to crickets to feed animals for human consumption can work outdoors.
“The environmental cycle is very important, not only locally but internationally,” he says.
It can be difficult to sell to overcome the general aversion to cockroaches elsewhere.
But it is a well-managed process that gives me substance to think.
In the last five years I’ve been in China, I’ve seen many local ideas flourish overseas, from sharing bicycles without lining to coronavirus containment measures adopted around the world.
Cricket breeding may be the next step.
Avid music fanatic. Communicator. Social media expert. Award-winning bacon scholar. Alcohol fan.