By Zoya Naqvi
Every brown-shelled, slimy snail living on the East Coast’s first snail farm shares a small living space in a 300-square-foot greenhouse, in large plastic bins filled with dark brown soil.
The Peconic Escargot snail farm in Cutchogue is home to almost 70,000 snails that are prepared as food once they reach maturity. Their caretaker, Taylor Knapp, is New York’s first snail farmer. It took him four years to convince the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that his petit gris snails are harmless to neighboring farmers and winemakers.
“We have a set of guidelines outlined by the USDA,” Knapp said.
The petit gris, or Cornu aspersum, is an invasive species of snail, which means they can kill off native crops and outcompete other animals. It’s one of the reasons there are just a few snail farms in the U.S.
“Farmers are struggling with so many disease pressures and pest pressures, and so that needs to be handled very carefully,” Robert Carpenter, administrative director of Long Island Farm Bureau, a nonprofit that advocates for local farmers, said.
Special precautions are taken to ensure the snails stay within the greenhouse. A double door secures the entrance, while salt water containers and snail repellent surround the area.
“All the cracks in the greenhouse are completely sealed, which is unusual because greenhouses usually have cracks,” Knapp said. “It’s kind of like a little snail jail.”
Because Knapp’s farm is located in the middle of Long Island’s wine country, local farmers worry about these small creatures damaging property.
“Many of these snails are cosmopolitan feeders that have the potential to damage large varieties and types of plants, vegetables, and fruits,” Abbey Powell, public affairs specialist of the USDA, said.
New York-based malacologist and master naturalist Marla Coppolino believes that land snails like the petit gris are extremely misunderstood creatures that can actually benefit the local ecosystem.
“They consume decaying vegetation from the forest floor,” Coppolino said. “These snails, in turn, become food for many animals, including certain species of beetles, salamanders, frogs, lizards, birds, and mammals.”
Snails are gastropods, or grazers, that can benefit the ecosystem by vacuuming up rotting vegetation and fungi in soil from a kind of file-like feeding organ called a radula, Kim Tetrault, mollusk expert and professor at Cornell University, said.
Land snails also play a big role in improving reproductive health in many New York bird species. Female wood thrushes and wild turkeys consume as much as 40 percent more snails than usual during egg-laying season.
In California, Frederick Dargenton, the owner of SoCal Escargot, opened his snail farm five years ago. Where Dargenton lives, the Cornu aspersum is considered a native species, so Knapp received his first batch of snails to breed from the West Coast.
“I send about 60 to 70 pounds per month,” Dargenton said.
Knapp leaped at the opportunity to open a snail farm in New York, because most chefs in the state work with canned snails their entire career. He compared the difference between canned snails and fresh snails to the difference between canned and fresh tomatoes.
Aside from the taste difference, snails are an extremely healthy source of protein. An ounce of snail contains more protein than beef, a high amount of iron, magnesium and very little fat. Canned snails don’t include every part of the snail. Now, Knapp can prepare various parts of the head and body.
“You get more protein for your buck with snails than you might get with other animal proteins,”
Ric Brewer, a snail farmer in Washington, said. Brewer also said that this invasive species is a sustainable food source.
Snail farms have a much smaller carbon footprint than most traditional protein sources like beef, pork or chicken. Livestock farming produces 20 to 50 percent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions, and snail meat showed a lower carbon footprint than other livestock, according to a 2016 ScienceDirect farm study.
“Perhaps the future of animals-based protein is snails,” Jann Vendetti, a Malacologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, said. “Snails as a protein source require far fewer resources – water, feed, space – and leave behind far less waste than vertebrate-derived protein sources.”
At Little Gray Farms, Brewer uses only a half-acre of his property. He’s able to produce several hundred pounds of protein a year, and Knapp says he can gather up to 40 pounds of protein a week.
But before they are sold to local food businesses, snails need to undergo a purging process, which cleans out the dirt or sand that collects in their stomachs. Just as oysters are contaminated by dirty water, snails pick up dangerous toxins.
“A lot of snails have parasites in them,” Gary Rosenberg, chair of malacology at Drexel University, said. “Every once in a while you see someone who got seriously ill as a result from the parasite you get from eating a raw snail.”
Despite the dangers of eating raw snails, Rosenberg believes that humans impose a greater threat to snails as more and more go extinct due to climate change, pollution, and pesticides. They are also one of the first animal species in the world to be affected by climate change.
“There’s probably four or five hundred species of mollusks that are on the endangered species list,” Rosenberg said.
Over the past two years, at least 140 scientific papers about endangered snails were published. Land snails represent about 40 percent of the known animal extinctions since 1500, including seven percent of the entire snail population that no longer exists.
Meanwhile, petit gris snails are far from becoming an endangered species, which is why Long Island farmers would rather see them on a menu than feasting on their crops.
“Cornu aspersum is the most widespread and prolific edible snail species, which makes it an ideal source of escargot.” Max Anton, wildlife documentary maker and snail expert, said.