When the word “escargot” is mentioned, countries such as France, Spain and Italy come to mind, but did you know we also have a booming snail industry in South Africa?
Michael Beetge, one of the owners of Goshen Snail Farm, says there has been a market for snails for the past 45 years in Mzansi. And with few local options to choose from, we’ve been importing most of our snails for years.
“Escargot” is the French word for snails, and it is a dish consisting of edible land snails. It’s a culinary delicacy around the world, and it used to be served at local restaurants like Spur.
“Spur is probably one of the largest restaurant brands that really sold quite a lot of escargot,” says Beetge. “And they have taken it off the menu because the supply was so untrustworthy.”
Beetge has been farming with snails for the past four years at Goshen Snail Farm, a family-based business located in Wilderness in the Western Cape.
“We’re a family-run farm so my brother-in-law, my father-in-law and I started this about four years ago,” says Beetge.
At the time, South Africa imported snails for the food market as well as the cosmetics industry. The men realised that the market was wide open for new farmers to enter, and the idea for Goshen Snail Farm was born.
Before they got started, they spent a whole year researching the industry and learning from snail farmers all over the world. They visited Ireland, Greece and Turkey, and built relationships with farmers in the Ukraine and Poland.
You can’t ‘copy-paste’ snail farming
When Beetge, his brother-in-law Kyle Oelofse and his father-in-law Johan Oelofse went to Turkey, they gained a lot of knowledge on snail farming.
“We visited probably the biggest factory in the world when it comes to the escargot industry,” says Beetge. “And they basically taught us how to process snails.”
They also flew a farmer from Greece and one from Poland to South Africa to get more help after they realised that they couldn’t just copy what other farmers were doing and expect to succeed.
“We realised that you need to take a little bit from all the industries to put together and add your own South African twist to it,” Beetge says. “It’s not copy-paste.”
They learned this the hard way. Beetge says they tried to “copy-paste” snail farming practices that they had learnt overseas, and they lost 10 tonnes of snails.
“It’s not just the 10 tonnes you lose; its six months of work and effort that went into it that you have lost,” he says. “It’s not so simple – like most things in life.”
After that first fail, they started from scratch, using a bit of knowledge from each of the countries and farms they had visited.
There are many different types of farmable snails, all of which can be used in either the cosmetics or the food industry. The different species vary not only in size and taste, but also in their breeding cycles, costs and requirements.
“The more expensive ones give you fewer eggs and take longer to grow,” says Beetge. “But mostly, those are harvested from the wild.”
At Goshen Snail Farm the family men farm with the Helix aspersa maxima snail species. These snails might look very familiar to most people, because it’s the common garden snail you would find in your own backyard.
They chose the Helix aspersa maxima because they are the most feasible with which to farm, giving about a hundred eggs per snail and taking around six months to reach maturity.
“Farming-wise this is probably the most common farm snail in the world,” estimates Beetge, “apart from the African Giants which are farmed in Central Africa and Indonesia.”
Getting your timing right
Beetge and the Goshen team run an outdoor snail farm on a third of a hectare. Although farming inside a building in a controlled environment will have its perks, Beetge says South Africa has a great climate for snail farming outdoors. New snail farmers have to be aware of the climate in their area and how this will impact the snail farm, however.
There are two phases in the snail lifecycle: They start out in breeding rooms and, in the next phase, get put outside in tunnels.
“So, it all comes down to timing,” says Beetge, “to when you want your snails exposed to the outside.”
In the breeding rooms, everything is controlled. But in the tunnels the snails are exposed to the elements, so your snails should be outside during the time when your climate is most suitable for them.
Harvesting your snails
When snails do not receive water or food, they go into a dormant phase called aestivation. Then, if you lower the temperature to five degrees Celsius and maintain it there for a few days, the animals will go into hibernation – a state in which they can stay for a long time.
According to Beetge, snails cannot sustain themselves for very long during aestivation. But the farmers noticed that, after once accidentally hibernating their snails for eight months, the creatures can stay in hibernation for a very long time.
“They are very hardy animals,” says Beetge. “They are very interesting and designed so well.”
After picking the snails from the outdoor tunnels and placing them inside on tables, farmers can manipulate the temperature so that their animals go into hibernation.
“We stop giving them food and water so that they go to sleep,” explains Beetge. “Then we package them and take them to the factory.”
According to Beetge, the processing of the snails thus happens while they sleep.
You might not know this, but snail meat is an excellent food source.
On the Goshen website they state that snail meat contains little cholesterol and fat while being rich in the vitamins, essential amino acids and minerals required for a healthy and well-balanced diet. Snail meat also contains a similar protein content to pork and beef.
Snails also serve other purposes than providing great nutritional value – their slime is used in many cosmetics products.
Current and future market
Locally we’ve been consuming snails for 45 years in South Africa, according to Beetge.
The market has barely seen any local snails for years, leaving it up to foreign snail imports to meet the demand.
The three family members who run Goshen Snail Farm, none of whom had a background in agriculture before, have their sights set on becoming the largest escargot player in the world in the next five years.
They plan to enter the export market once the market for snails is saturated in South Africa. “We all have a mining background, and a sales and retail background,” says Beetge. “That’s where the business mind kicks in. You realise this market is untouched.”
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