Snail farming

November 2008
Looking for a home-based business that she could run on the family two acre block in the Hawkes Bay, Raewyn Achten researched and then established a snail farm that now supplies restaurants and individuals with ready-to-use snails that have considerable advantages over imported products. The response has been enthusiastic and the business is growing.

In 2005, Raewyn Achten was after a small home-based business that she could run on the family two-acre block near Hastings. She had heard of snail farming and searched for information on the Internet. There were no listings in NZ, but an Australian website offered a how to kit, so in November 2005 she bought a kit and started off.

Her initial research included contacting local restaurants and she found that some were using imported snails and most were interested in trying the locally-grown product.

Within a month she and husband Paul had constructed the first bed along Australian lines, about 4m by 2m, made from corrugated iron and covered with netting. They stocked it by raiding all their friends gardens for ordinary garden snails. The system worked ok, but they had problems with birds eating the snails apparently that doesnt happen in Australia.

Today their beds are all protected by bird netting that also help keep away the other predators rats, hedgehogs and even frogs.

The business is co-owned with Nigel and Jaye Sims.

A visit to their mentor in Australia saw them try a different and much better open pasture method. They now have the beds in amongst their hazelnut trees.

Currently Raewyn has nine beds 2 m wide by 25 m long, each planted out with brassicas and plantain. From spring to autumn the snails hide by day and forage by night.

They eat brassicas and plantain and whatever else we plant last year we tried lettuces and other fresh vegetables, says Raewyn.

They eat everything very quickly. We had some cauliflowers that had gone to seed so we put them in with the snails, and the next morning you would not have known that they had been there.

Seasonal cycle

In the Hawkes Bay, snails are active from spring through to autumn, says Raewyn.

All the snails we have here now are last year's babies, and they will grow to maturity this year and breed. Although they are self-fertile (hermaphrodite) they also breed sexually. A snail can reach maturity in four or five months and each one will lay between 60 and 80 eggs, she says.

A couple of weeks later they hatch and they are perfect tiny snails about the size of the ball on the ballpoint pen. They start eating and grow very rapidly.

Harvesting starts around mid-November when there is a steady supply of mature snails. When they reach 32 mm across the base they are taken off soil and fed organic bran for a week to cleanse their gut and make them safe to eat. Then they are blanched, de-shelled (a tricky process that takes some skill) and offered to restaurants in minimum lots of 5 dozen in a plastic pottle in spring water, with a shelf-life of one week. The response has been very encouraging.

Unique product

What is unique about them is that we send the whole snail whereas the snails that you might buy from France or Italy have been gutted. Our snails still look like they are in the shell because they have still got the whorl on the body, so they look stunning, and that is one of the main comments from chefs, says Raewyn.

For the general public we are putting about 30 into jars with vinegar and wine, and this increases their shelf-life up to five months. We have been quite surprised how popular they are.

Many restaurants offer the snails just with garlic butter, but the more adventurous chefs have served them in dumplings, in ox-tongue soup, risotto and even snail cappuccinos! In Auckland they were used in the recent Monteith Wild Food Challenge a snail ravioli with citrus chutney, and spinach and tomato puree. For retail clients Raewyn offers a brochure with some recipe ideas almost everyone, she says, has tried them in garlic butter but there are just so many more ways that snails can be prepared.

When she received such a positive response from her initial foray into the market Raewyn persuaded a friend, Jay Sims, to start a bed. Between them they hope to produce 50 60,000 this year. The total number of snails is around 100,000 but many do not reach the required size. However, the smaller ones arent wasted they are used at food shows like the Hawkes Bay Gourmet Food Weekend, and Taste Martinborough.

Hard work

Although snail farming may sounds easy it is actually very hard work, according to Raewyn.

The book said that snail farming is not for the fainthearted but it looked easier than it actually is. It is not until you get into it that you realise how much work there is, and the good thing about it is that you do get a few months break over the winter, she says.

It is labour-intensive. Sometimes we have to move an entire bed of snails into a new area so that they have got food and most snails have been picked up by hand at some stage, so that is a lot of snails to move. They hide in all sorts of places and you might think you have cleared a bed out but then you go back and find that there is another thousand snails in there.

At present we have about 100,000 juveniles, but as they grow we will sort out the bigger ones into beds of about 6000. They take a lot of feeding, and it has been a steep learning curve. We have trialled different forms of brassicas and it's important to get the timing right so that there is enough food for them and it does not go to seed.

Each season so far has been different it depends on what the weather is doing as well. In spring it can be off and on, you may get a cold snap and the snails will go back into hibernation or slow down quite a bit, and of course if they do not eat then they will not grow.