There’s good news and bad news.
The good news is that West Australian cooks and eaters will soon be able to get their hands on fresh, commercially grown snails thanks to a new family-run farm in the Southern Forests and Valleys region. (The majority of snails eaten in Australia come out of a tin.) The bad news? The farm’s initial release has all been pre-sold and potential buyers will have to add their name to a waitlist. Who knew that snails could move so quickly? Well, Victoria and Nick Howe – the husband-and-wife founders of South West Snails – for starters.
In a previous life, the Howes were members of the police force, relocating from England to Manjimup as part of their work. Raising a young family got the Howes thinking about new starts – which eventually led them to purchase a 40-acre property in Yanmah, a lush farming district 20 minutes’ drive west of Manjimup. The property was home to a charming farmhouse, and enough land for the Howes to engage in some kind of small-scale agriculture. Enter the snail game.
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Considering that commercial snail farming only began in Australia during the mid-1980s, snail farms – and even information on snail farming – are thin on the ground. Nonetheless, Victoria called on skills gleaned in her former career as a detective and found contact details for farmers over east. Online reports and studies from the department of agriculture also helped convince the Howes that they were onto something, not least because there was no one in Western Australia supplying live snails to the market. Equally attractive was being able to upcycle something that is, by and large, considered “unwanted”.
“People tread on [snails] and poison them and think of them as a pest,” says Victoria. “So for us to be able to turn that pest into a resource is, I think, a great thing.”
While snail consumption might be synonymous with French cuisine – see “escargot”; see also the garlic snail frites at Beaufort Street favourite Le Rebelle – snails are eaten around the world. They enjoy a small but prominent role in the cuisines of Nigeria, Ghana and other West African nations. Sea snails and freshwater snails are also prized in Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia, where they’re grilled, boiled and turned into curries. Ever gathered abalone or periwinkles during WA’s open season? Both belong to the snail family.
Typically, snail farms are outdoor operations. Considering Manjimup gets especially cold during winter and snails hibernate in the cold, the Howes decided to explore the potential of indoor snail farming: all the better to supply the gastropodse year-round. After trials including growing snails in a greenhouse and under the family home, they settled on a shed. To help create optimal summery conditions, the Howes draped the walls with reflective mylar sheeting, strewed light bulbs through the space and used a small heater to regulate temperatures during the cold weather. Former police colleagues couldn’t help but notice the shed’s increasing resemblance to a grow-house.
Nonetheless, the set-up seems to be working. After beginning with Cornu aspersum (the ubiquitous brown snail found in suburban gardens everywhere) gathered from friends’ farms and gardens, the Howes now have around 17,000 snails at various sizes. Plastic IBCs (intermediate bulk containers used to transport liquids) have been turned into snail pens filled with shallow soil that the snails lay eggs in: clusters of snow-white pellets that call to mind micronized mothballs. The eggs are then taken to another part of the shed to hatch, slowly growing from gritty, barely there specks to fully fledged snails. Baby snails are fed ground pellets for egg-laying chickens (Nick: “It’s got everything they need, including vitamins, minerals and calcium for their shells”) while the bigger snails get fresh produce including lettuce, kale and outer cauliflower leaves. The target, says Victoria, is to get snails with shells that are around 30 millimetres in diameter. From there, the snails are purged to remove grit from their system, chilled, and then sent live to customers.
If all goes as planned, the Howes will have their first commercial order ready in October. As well as local customers, there have been expressions of interest from people over east and in Asia. In addition to the snails themselves, opportunities are also there to sell the snail eggs (“snail caviar”) and snail slime (“mucin”): a product that is finding favour in the beauty industry for its supposed hydration and moisturising properties.
Talking to the Howes about all things snail-related (fun fact: snails are hermaphrodites and shoot “love darts” as part of the reproduction process), you get a real sense of their enthusiasm and the potential of snail farming. As carbon footprints become a bigger issue among eaters and within the food system, alternative proteins such as snails may very well go from novelty to mainstream. (See “eating the problem”.) And the good news is that the Howes are just getting started.
“We’re putting in a lot of effort at the moment, but when you’ve got a passion and drive for something [and] it’s your own, it doesn’t feel like work,” says Victoria. “We’re enjoying it and it hasn’t really felt like work at all yet. I don’t think it will.”