JINAN, China — The squat concrete building was once a chicken coop, but now it’s part of a farm with an entirely different kind of livestock — millions of cockroaches.
Inside, squirming masses of the reddish-brown insects dart between sheets of corrugated metal and egg cartons that have been tied together to provide the kind of dark hiding places they favor.
Wang Fuming kneels down and pulls out one of the nests. Unaccustomed to the light, the roaches scurry about, a few heading straight up his arm toward his short-sleeve shirt.
“Nothing to be afraid of,” Wang counsels visitors who are shrinking back into the hallway, where stray cockroaches cling to a ceiling that’s perilously close overhead.
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Although cockroaches evoke a visceral dread for most people, Wang looks at them fondly as his fortune — and his future.
The 43-year-old businessman is the largest cockroach producer in China (and thus, probably in the world), with six farms populated by an estimated 10 million cockroaches. He sells them to producers of Asian medicine and to cosmetic companies that value the insects as a cheap source of protein as well as for the cellulose-like substance on their wings.
The favored breed for this purpose is the Periplaneta americana, or American cockroach, a reddish-brown insect that grows to about 1.6 inches long and, when mature, can fly, as opposed to the smaller, darker, wingless German cockroach.
Since Wang got into the business in 2010, the price of dried cockroaches has increased tenfold, from about $2 a pound to as much as $20, as manufacturers of traditional medicine stockpile pulverized-cockroach powder.
“I thought about raising pigs, but with traditional farming, the profit margins are very low,” Wang said. “With cockroaches, you can invest 20 yuan and get back 150 yuan,” or $3.25 for a return of $24.
China has about 100 cockroach farms, and new ones are opening almost as fast as the prolific critters breed. But even among Chinese, the industry was little known until August, when a million cockroaches got out of a farm in neighboring Jiangsu province. The Great Escape made headlines around China and beyond, evoking biblical images of swarming locusts.
As a boy, Wang had liked collecting insects, so he started with scorpions and beetles, both used in traditional medicine and served as delicacies. One batch of his beetle eggs turned out to be contaminated with cockroach eggs.
“I was accidentally raising cockroaches, and then I realized they were the easiest and most profitable,” he said.
The startup costs are minimal — Wang bought only eggs, a rundown abandoned chicken coop and the roofing tile. Notoriously hearty, roaches aren’t susceptible to the same diseases as farm animals. As for feeding them, cockroaches are omnivores, though they favor rotten vegetables. Wang feeds his brood with potato and pumpkin peelings discarded from nearby restaurants.
Killing them is easy, too: Just scoop or vacuum them out of their nests and dunk them in a big vat of boiling water. Then they’re dried in the sun like chili peppers.
Perhaps understandably, the cockroach business (“special farming,” as it is euphemistically called) is a fairly secretive industry. Wang’s farm, for instance, operates in an agribusiness industrial park under an elevated highway. The sign at the front gate simply reads Jinan Hualu Feed Co.
“We try to keep a low profile,” said Liu Yusheng, head of the Shandong Insect Industry Association, the closest thing there is to a trade organization. “The government is tacitly allowing us to do what we do, but if there is too much attention, or if cockroach farms are going into residential areas, there could be trouble.”
Liu worries about the rapid growth of an industry with too many inexperienced players and too little oversight. In 2007, a million Chinese lost $1.2 billion when a firm promoting ant farming turned out to be a Ponzi scheme and went bankrupt.
“This is not like raising regular farm animals or vegetables where the Agricultural Ministry knows who is supposed to regulate it. Nobody knows who is in charge here,” he said.
The low startup costs make raising cockroaches an appealing business for wannabe entrepreneurs, who can buy cockroach eggs and complete how-to kits from promoters.
“People laughed at me when I started, but I always thought that cockroaches would bring me wealth,” said Zou Hui, 40, who quit her job at a knitting factory in 2008 after seeing a television program about raising cockroaches.
It’s not exactly a fortune, but the $10,000 she brings in annually selling cockroaches is decent money for her hometown in rural Sichuan province, and won her an award last year from local government as an “Expert in Getting Wealthy.”
“Now I’m teaching four other families,” Zou said. “They want to get rich like me.”
At least five pharmaceutical companies are using cockroaches for traditional Chinese medicine. Research is under way in China and South Korea on the use of pulverized cockroaches for treating baldness, AIDS and cancer and as a vitamin supplement. South Korea’s Jeonnam Province Agricultural Research Institute and China’s Dali University College of Pharmacy have published papers on the anti-carcinogenic properties of the cockroach.
Li Shunan, a 78-year-old professor of traditional medicine from the southwestern province of Yunnan who is considered the godfather of cockroach research, said he discovered in the 1960s that ethnic minorities near the Vietnamese border were using a cockroach paste to treat bone tuberculosis.
“Cockroaches are survivors,” Li said. “We want to know what makes them so strong — why they can even resist nuclear effects.”