October 31, 2014
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France
Keeping up with Snails

Their demanding escargot farm keeps this couple going day and night

Stéphane and Nathalie Ferrat say raising snails is a labor of love — not love for the slimy gastropods, but for each other.

They started an escargot farm in Estoher, in France’s Languedoc- Roussillon region, as a means of living and working together.

At the foot of lush, green mountains and surrounded by peach orchards, La Ferme aux Escargots provides a tranquil backdrop for what Stéphane, 45, and Nathalie, 39, describe as a busy but beautiful life.

“We appreciate the way of life we have,” Nathalie said. “It’s a pleasure. It’s a quiet life. There is no noise [but] it’s a job that’s very hard, because we do 17 hours of work in a day.”

The couple struggled to spend time together after meeting in the north of France more than a decade ago. At the time, Stéphane worked for the French military, and Nathalie was a secretary.

“[For a] long time I never see Nathalie. She works with her boss and I work for [mine], so we never lived together, [but we] want to live and work together,” Stéphane explained. A lean, energetic man, he talks steadily.

After they married in 1999, Nathalie brought Stéphane to this region so he could meet her parents. Stéphane fell in love with the land, and so they decided to use farming as a way to work together.

The couple didn’t see themselves as traditional farmers.

“Agriculture,” Stéphane said, “It’s possible, but I am not sure I’ve got a green thumb. So no trees, no vegetables.”

He also had reservations about traditional farm animals. “I’m afraid of cows. I think they’re very dangerous.”

“Horses are dangerous in the back, dangerous in the front and very uncomfortable (to sit) on.”

Goats, he added, are destructive. “You keep something if you have got a goat.”

Eventually, he found the right animal: safe, quiet, clean and unable to escape easily.

Building by Hand

The French word escargot refers to any edible snail. Stéphane and Nathalie farm two types of snails popular in this region: helix aspersa minima and helix aspersa maxima, which they affectionately call “petit gris” (little gray) and “gros gris” (big gray).

In 2003, while Nathalie attended agricultural school in Savoie, Stéphane began building their farm. He hauled in dirt to create a foundation and stones to build a wall around the farm. For the snails, he built “parks” — long rectangular sections of land enclosed by a mesh electric fence, to keep the snails from crawling away.

Stéphane’s ingenuity is evident all around the farm; in the small house and office he built, in the gypsy caravan he designed and hand-carved; even in the furniture, which he made himself. Although untrained in construction, he managed to wire the farm for electricity, and diverted a local natural water source to create irrigation and a small pond.

Nathalie handles publicity and administration, while Stephane does most of the physical labor and artistic work. He drew the farm’s logo, after envisioning the shape of a boy and a snail in some spilt sugar.

The Catastrophe

Their first year of raising snails almost became their last, when nearly half of the snails escaped after their electric fence failed during a rainstorm. Returning home from the nearby city of Perpignan, they found many of their first crop of 300,000 snails squished on the road outside the farm.

“The first years for Nathalie and me [were] a catastrophe,” Stéphane said. They lost money.

To be considered a professional snail farmer in France, one must be raising at least 300,000 snails; fewer than that, and the agricultural administration classifies you as a hobbyist.

After seven years in business, La Ferme aux Escargot is raising 500,000 snails on two square acres of land. Soon the couple hopes to begin harvesting snail eggs for caviar.

By producing high-quality snails and continually expanding their product line, they hope to ride out the national economic crisis and challenge the stereotypes many people hold about snails.

“Everybody thinks snails are very expensive, but they’re not more expensive than beef,” Stéphane said. “It’s in the brain of everybody that snail is a product of luxury. It’s a real problem.”

Although their snails are organic, the Ferrats are reluctant to call them that.

“We don’t want to have this label, because it is used by everybody and by lobbyists,” Nathalie said, explaining that many businesses adopt the “organic” label as a reason to raise their prices, even if their products are not fully organic.

Unable to afford employees, and reluctant to use machines and chemicals, the Ferrats use animals to help them in their work.

“We don’t use chemicals against the pests, the grass or the predators,” Nathalie said. “It’s is not dangerous for the snails if they eat the chemicals — but if we eat snails after they have eaten chemicals, it is dangerous for us.”

Two goats, a handful of rabbits and a sheep keep the grass around the snail parks trimmed. Two ferrets and three cats hunt the rats that eat the snails, while bats, two turtles and frogs keep down the mosquitoes that damage snail eggs.

“Our philosophy is, we want to use the ecosystem to have good results,” Nathalie said.

While many people in this region pick up snails from the street after it rains, the Ferrats say snails from the wild contain pollution that can affect the taste and nutrients of snail flesh.

Sitting down for lunch in the shade outside their home, they watch their five-year-old son Marckam play in the grass. Stephane checks the snails sizzling on the grill in traditional Catalan cargolade style, while Nathalie spreads on a piece of bread terrine d’escargots, a snail pate of her own recipe.

Across the way, a neighbor’s peach orchard stretches out along the foot of the Canigou Mountain like a vivid green carpet. A bird whistles in the distance, its song rising above the soothing sound of the sprinklers watering the snail parks.

“Snail or no snail, I don’t care,” Stéphane said. “It’s tranquil. I stay here not for snails, but because the area is for me.”

This article was adapted from InPerpignan,  a multimedia project of the Institute for Education in International Media and the San Francisco State University journalism department.

3 comments about “Keeping up with Snails”

  1. PhillDanze says:

    Great and interesting story - also love the environmentally friendly aspect.

  2. Denia Prawn and Cauliflower Paella Recipe says:

    [...] Big World Magazine » Keeping up with Snails [...]

  3. Mike says:

    Hi Morgan,
    I work with your Mom. I was a journalist at two daily newspapers for about 12 years, then taught at the U. of Kentucky. Very well-written and reported article. Hope to see more of your journalism.

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