MARION, Illinois — Todd Goodman jokingly refers to himself as a “bug rancher.” But he is serious about his work.
“I am a farmer,” he said as he walked through the empire he had created.
The owner of Timberline Live Pet Foods has transformed a local bait shop into the nation’s largest manufacturer of exotic pet foods. And although the “cattle” he raises weighs less than a gram each, he takes just as much care of his product as a rancher or pig farmer.
The small family business that supplied local bait shops with worms, crickets and minnows a few decades ago has grown into a major national wholesaler. Timberline supplies exotic pet foods to every Petco store and half of the nation’s PetSmart stores. He also sells insects to several zoos, including the St. Louis Zoo, the San Diego Zoo, and the Brookfield Zoo.
Although the company founded by his father, Ray Goodman, was successful, it was never to become more than a local business with a handful of employees. Timberline Fisheries remains his corporate name, but the company today has virtually nothing to do with fishing.
Todd Goodman carried with him a vision that would take Timberline to a brave new world.
“I grew up in this business,” he says. “I counted worms when I was 8 years old. When I left college in 1988, I knew I would have a job to do.”
He took a close look at the industry and recognized its limitations. The bait business, for one, is seasonal. And there is little room for growth. His eyes opened while visiting an exotic pet food exhibition.
“I said holy cow! It’s a whole new world out there. No season, no regionality,” he said.
The son convinced the father to go in a different direction. Instead of selling bait, they would sell feed.
“Virtually everything I’ve taken as bait on my truck also translates to the exotic animal business as fodder,” Goodman said. “We had to find a way to keep our eight to ten employees busy.”
He did, increasing the workforce to about 160 today. He worked on a campus made up of dozens of buildings outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment.
When Todd Goodman took over, Timberline’s business was 1% pet food and 99% bait. It’s the other way around today.
He attributes the company’s success to his ambition and optimal timing. He was willing to work with clients in the exotic animal business by adapting to their needs, something many in the industry were unwilling to do.
“That’s how we targeted pet shops,” he said. “We told them we were new. how do you want her What should the box look like? I think this has resonated with a lot of pet shops.”
Lifestyles changed, including keeping pets.
“We got in at the right time, just as the specialty segment of the pet supplies industry was growing,” he said. “We met what was going on with people. They moved around more, maybe lived in a smaller place. You can have a tank with a lizard in it and go away for a weekend and it will be fine.”
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Pop culture was even a factor.
“Jurassic Park had just come out, which weirdly made people want to get their hands on a little dinosaur,” Goodman said.
Timberline ships billions of crickets, flies and worms annually. About 50 million leave the company’s main campus, south of Marion, in Williamson County, Illinois, every week.
The fate of its living product hasn’t changed over the years: they’ve all been eaten. But the emphasis is different today. Instead of fishermen hoping to catch some crappie, consumers are owners of reptiles and birds.
“Now we talk to our customers about nutrition,” he said.
Timberline has worked with scientists to develop optimal feed formulations for its insects. It took 10 years to find the right mix.
“We take each species that we’ve bred and mimic a diet that they would eat in the wild because they feed on different plants,” Goodman said. “Just as farmers want to fatten cows and pigs, so does our industry. But it was cheap food. Now we’ve added back all the nutrients they get naturally in their diet.”
About 22 years ago, Timberline turned to Purina for help in developing a diet for its insects that met the company’s priorities. The proprietary feed – Timberline processes 50 tons a week – consists of ground grain that is wetted with nutrients like fatty acids and carotene and then dried again. It basically comes as a corn or soybean based powder. Wheat flour is also used as bedding for insects during transportation.
“It took 10 years to come up with that,” Goodman said of the lining, which is made at its Missouri facility.
Timberline has added products to its line. Nowadays hornworms, flightless fruit flies and lime worms are offered. But crickets remain the best seller. The company ships the bugs in 10 sizes, the smallest that fits on a pinhead.
“Chameleons are born alive. They need very little food,” Goodman said. “The size of the food, unless it is a soft worm, must not be larger than the distance between the corners of the mouth. If I ship these today, they will be this size in a few days. So we have to hurry and get them to our customers.”
Reptiles and amphibians are the main consumers. But the company also supplies some birds, tropical fish, and even primates. Crickets are also finding their way into large ape enclosures in zoos, not as food but as training equipment.
“A thousand crickets get thrown in there,” Goodman said. “It gets them moving. They hunt her. They will even eat some.”
In some societies, insects are consumed by humans, and some environmental activists advocate increasing the consumption of high-protein insects. But Goodman is not on board.
“I’m not going to make this a food-grade insect farm for four reasons: USDA,” he said. “We’re regulated now, but if they want to come here and put white gloves on us, that’s a different story. Besides, I just won’t eat bugs.”
In any case, he doesn’t believe that insect production is any more sustainable than animal husbandry.
“Believe it from a cricket farmer — it’s not,” he said.