Life in the slow lane is just the ticket for Ireland's snail farmers
Ireland is ideally placed to fill some of the global shortage of snails which is estimated at 100,000 tonnes per annum
There is a snail shortage on the world market - 100,000 tonnes annually to be precise.
Given this statistic, the recent two day seminar on snail production, held in Athlone, was a timely reminder of the unusual opportunity for Ireland to supply snails to continental Europe.
But apart from increasing snail farming acreage, we also need to improve snail processing skills and facilities before we can exploit the potential markets in countries such as France, Italy, Greece, Belgium, Poland, Germany and Canada, where the humble 'escargot' is part of the regular diet.
Eva Milka (pictured), who describes herself as the "mother of Irish snail farming" says it is 'heartbreaking' to see the commercial opportunities of snail farming being ignored by Irish agriculture.
"We have the weather, we have the soil, the clear water and we are a farming country," Eva said. "So why not get the snail industry up and running?"
The Polish native, who emigrated to Ireland in 2006 with her partner, has been snail farming for the past two years on an acre of land near Garryhill in Co Carlow.
This year's crop came out at eight tonnes but she had to export all of it to Poland for processing.
The processor there added garlic and oils and many extra euros before selling the product on to our snail-eating fellow Europeans.
Eva was helped by Enterprise Ireland, her local development office and by the Arthur Guinness Fund to develop her snail farming enterprise.
She believes it is time for the agri-food industry to take the next step.
"We should have more snail farmers in Ireland who could combine their snail crops and supply a processing factory here which could develop markets for Irish snails on the continent," she says.
Katherine Cocollos, who runs a similar sized snail farm with her French-born husband in Kinvara, Co Galway, agrees. She sees a great future for the enterprise but admits it is a learning curve.
This year she imported 300,000 baby snails from France to produce her first crop but lost nearly 40pc of the crop due to the sharp weather last May.
Nevertheless her remaining snail crop will be winging its way shortly to France to a perfumer who supplies "snail mucus' to leading perfume makers like L'Oreal.
She will probably break even on her debut snail crop.
She gets around €320 a tonne for her 'gros gris' and €340 a tonne for her tastier 'petit gris'.
"I made the mistake of not having the snails in a poly tunnel in the spring when the weather took a turn but I won't be making that mistake again. The next crop will all be in a poly tunnel," Katherine vows.
She set up the snail farm on a site left to her by her late uncle and rears the baby snails on a diet of soya and calcium and all the radishes and rapeseed they can devour.
She admits that it is sometimes a question of trial and error for her at the moment but already she has halved her feed costs by getting a local mill to produce the recipe for the snail food. Like Eva, she is looking for ways to add value and reduce costs at her farm.
Will she persevere with the business?
"Oh yes I'm in it for the long term," replies the former PA who spent most of her working life in France before returning to Galway with her husband who runs an oyster farm in Newport that exports all its product to France.
"They are really Irish oysters that are finished in France but don't tell the French that," Katherine explains.
The recent conference, which ran over two days, was organised by the National Organic Training Skillnet and featured talks by leading European snail farmers and breeders.
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