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They are nice beasts, they don’t make a noise or smell

In our occasional series looking at different jobs, snail farmer Sylvain Rouchon, 43, tells Jessica Smith how he got into his unusual occupation

Why did you choose snail farming? 

I used to work in microelectronics, but I wanted to work with animals, and also to be independent. Snails are small, so it costs less to farm them than cows or sheep. You don’t need as much land or infrastructure. 

What qualifications or training did you need? 

I did a specific course in heliciculture (snail farming) for three months; it was called a BPRA (Brevet Professionnel: Responsable d’Exploitation Agricole) certificate which I took at an adult training centre, a CFPPA (Centre de Formation Professionnel et de Promotion Agricole). It was snails day and night! 

We learned about their biology, zoology, how to cook them, and things such as the fact that it is a meat product but it is legally considered a crustacean. We learned about European standards, and marketing. 

I then did a general diploma in agriculture, which I needed to meet the requirements of the Chambre d’Agriculture. 

Do you like snails? 

Yes! They are nice beasts, and they don’t make any noise or smell, so it’s more pleasant than farming other types of animal. 

I do still like eating them, too – even after 17 years of snail farming! I often cook up a plate to share with family or friends. 

How did you start out? 

I bought an old farmhouse with a small piece of land next to it, in Mars in the Ardèche. The farm is very small, the snails live on just 2000m2 of land. 

When I started out, it was difficult for the first three years, until the farm became economically viable. That’s what it’s like when you start from zero! With zero production, and no clients…

What does your job involve? 

I work through from birth to reproduction, to selling the final product - including prepared dishes. 

There are three stages in snail farming; birth, fattening, and processing. 

To start with, the newborn snails are put into the fattening area, or park. Some of them are produced for meat, while others are used for reproduction. Those produced for meat take six or seven months to reach maturity, while those used for reproduction can take a year or more. 

Our production rhythm is similar to that of vineyards, which is good because snails go very well with both red and white wine, and champagne! So I put the snails in the fattening area in May, and begin to harvest them at the end of August, through until the end of October. At the start the baby snails measure between 2 and 3mm, and they weigh 3 to 4mg; when they reach maturity they measure 3 to 4.45 cm, and weigh between 25 and 35mg. 

Our annual production is about 150,000 snails; I can’t harvest this amount all at once, so I do it in stages. Once I have collected them I put them in a fridge for a maximum of 15 days; they go into hibernation mode and lose weight, but they must not lose too much before they are killed. 

Then comes the slaughter stage; I kill them by boiling them. They are boiled in 100 litre pots, and I do between five and six kilos at a time; usually this works out at between 5000 and 6000 snails a day. 

Next is ‘blanchiment’ (blanching). I take off the shell and remove the guts: you only keep the muscle, or the ‘foot’. The ‘blanchiment’ is done with vinegar and salt, and then the snails are stored in a freezer. 

Afterwards comes the cooking stage. Snails can be prepared in different ways; for example with carrots and onions, also with white wine, and with butter. 

Does it make you sad to kill your snails? 

At the start it did a little, but now I have killed so many thousands! Also, when they are killed they are in hibernation mode; the body is completely inside the shell and the heart is beating very slowly. They go straight into boiling water, it is very quick, and they don’t suffer. 

Who buys your snails? 

Most of my clients are individuals, around 80%. Some of these come straight to the farm, others go to sales points on other farms. The rest of my clients are restaurants. Most of them come to the farm, but we also sell our products at Christmas markets and food fairs. For example, my wife did a weekend at a fair for the new Beaujolais: that will be a good time for us. We have good relationships with vineyards. 

How much do they cost?

My snails cost €6 for 12 prepared snails, which is a portion for one person. For unprepared snails, they are €12.50 for 48.

What do you think is the future of snail farming?

For now, it is going well for me, but we will have to see how it goes with the future of Europe, whether doors stay open or not. Currently, we have competition from producers in Poland and Greece. 

I have established myself now, but if I was younger I would hesitate. When young people come to the farm and tell me they are interested in snail farming, I advise them to really think it through before starting out. 

When I started my business, I was able to launch as a full-time snail farmer straight away. I would advise people starting out in the industry now to have a complementary activity alongside snail farming. 

Nowadays, the economic, competitive, environmental and sanitary conditions are such that you cannot improvise as a snail farmer, you really have to know what you are doing to avoid problems which can quickly become insurmountable. 

When you are caught up in the whirlwind of activity of working with living creatures – which is a daily activity, 365 days a year – it is easy to get behind on your administrative work. Therefore, it is a good idea to prepare everything in advance, to ensure your project will last in the long-term. 

Is it a family business? Are your children interested in heliciculture? 

My wife Maurène helps with the marketing, but I work alone. Of course, my boys Antonin (6) and Aristide (4) are interested in snail farming, they have always been immersed in it! We want to pass on the business.

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