Today we meet snail farmers from Somerset Escargot. When Lyn and her husband Rob moved from the city to the beautiful English countryside, they decided they wanted to do something with the piece of land that came with their new home. They decided to breed snails and Somerset Escargot was born!
Make sure you check our previous inspiring interview with Ric Brewer from Little Gray Farms.
Where did you get the idea to start snail farming?
A couple of years ago we moved in our new home and we are lucky enough to have some land attached. We knew we wanted to use the land somehow, although we were brought up as townies – Birmingham and London, we both love the outdoors. Googling brought up things like Alpaca or other larger farm animals, we considered goats, growing grapes or Christmas trees, but each was either a large time or money investment, or needed skills and experience we didn’t naturally possess. It had to fit in alongside our current business (we also have a management consultancy), with the potential to grow.
Then we came across snail farming and it seemed perfect. It can be started on a small scale, with a relatively low investment compared to other businesses. And it seemed that it wasn’t out of our reach to learn what we needed to help our snail stock to thrive.
We attended a training course over in Ireland and the other thing which appealed was how snail farming has become popular in Ireland, with around 15 over there. We were excited by the potential to create a snail farm movement in the UK!
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Where is your snail farm located and how big is the farm?
We’re located in ‘sunny’ Somerset, where we have an ideal climate for snail farming, as it’s a little warmer than other parts of the UK.
We’re currently quite small with around half an acre, but we hope to grow year on year and have the potential for around 9-10 acres if we want to expand. We started this year with a stock of 1000 breeders and they are reproducing extremely well, so we hope to have around 20,000 to 30,000 snails by the end of the year, maybe more!
What are the most important things to consider when starting a snail farm?
Setting up the infrastructure takes so much more time and effort than you can ever imagine! There’s a lot of manual work involved – carpentry to build the breeding and baby tables, ground work for putting in water pipes, posts and fencing and then the hard graft of things like stretching the bird netting over the frame. I would recommend starting your build a year before you are due to start farming, so you can allow for bad weather etc. – this years horrible, wet winter slowed us down a lot.
Then also give some thought to how you will sell your escargot. Do you want to export in bulk, or sell smaller quantities directly to restaurants for example? How are you going to promote your business, is this a skill you possess, or do you need to learn about how to use social media for example?
The other area we are learning about is the regulations around food processing, so we can explore whether we would like to sell our escargot already cooked.
For most people, when they start out snail farming it’s a second business or side hustle. It’s hard work doing the setting up and learning whilst also bringing in an income from elsewhere, or managing a family etc. But, this is the case with most start-ups, it’s challenging for the first few years.
How much time did your farm take to be built up and running?
Much longer than expected! We started in August 2019 and we still have work to do as of the end of April 2020. We’ve managed to get everything we needed just in time, with a few little adjustments, like keeping our first hatchlings in the same room as our breeders because we hadn’t quite got our polytunnel ready.
What are the biggest obstacles to successful snail farming?
There’s more to learn than we anticipated. It’s not just about farming the snails, it’s learning about food processing regulations, considering packaging and food safety, understanding how to export, sourcing suppliers for things like feed and equipment.
In what form do you sell snails and where did you find your first buyers?
It’s still early days for us as we’re in our first year of farming, so we’re building our buyer network. We currently sell our snails live and hibernated, so it’s down to the customer to cook and prepare.
We received some great PR and social media attention very early on after becoming finalists in a business award competition, this really helped to spread the word about our business.
We also participated in a local food festival where we met a few restaurant owners. It’s about networking and PR and spreading the word. My advice would be, don’t be afraid to pick out suitable (trade) customers and contact them directly to tell them what you do.
What does your typical day look like?
Right now it’s April and our breeding season will be over soon. I think this is the busiest time, but have yet to see how the rest of the year pans out.
Every morning I go out and open the polytunnel so it doesn’t get too hot and I mist the baby snails and give them food. Then up to the breeding room to clean off the feeding boards and curtains and feed the adult snails. Pots of soil are collected and fresh put out.
Eggs are collected from pots and put into trays, each one is misted every day to keep the eggs moist. New hatchlings are put out onto the baby table.
That’s the morning done, then the afternoon this year has been spent building the farm infrastructure and desk work. Then back out to the adults and babies again in the evening to mist again and close the polytunnel door, ready for night time.
What personal traits does a person need to start this venture and be successful?
I think some of it depends how you want to sell your snails. If you export in bulk for instance, then you don’t need the PR and marketing skills.
For anyone starting a new business it needs resilience, there will definitely be times when you wonder why on earth you started the journey, especially when trying to juggle all your other commitments alongside it. Keep your eye on your vision and keep going!
Practical skills like basic carpentry and construction are really useful too, for building the tables and enclosure, unless you pay someone to do that for you.
Where did you learn both the business and technical side of snail farming?
Both Rob and I have worked for and with various organisations for over 20 years in operational, sales and training roles, so we have lots of experience of the business side of things. For the technical side of snail farming we attended a course, which was a really useful introduction. We share learning and information with other snail farmers all around the world, even as far as Australia! Plus we glean what we can from the internet. And of course, trial and error!
Do you recommend any good restaurant serving escargots?
La Petite Bouchee a lovely little restaurant tucked away in Devon were one of our first customers and of course, being a French style brasserie, escargot are a great addition to their menu!
If you would like to learn how to start snail farming, you can purchase a Guide to Snail Farming here.