Snails are slow, but snail farming is growing fast

Monday, November 12, 2001

Heliciculture has become one of the newest and fastest growing industries in the United States.

Heliciculture, the process of snail farming, is being developed by a number of individuals.

The market place is wide open and is among the numerous "alternatives to agriculture" being introduced where new agriculture enterprises are discussed.

We don't expect to see snails or truffles (mushrooms) on the agenda for new industries in the region any time soon, but an agriculture conference will address some new agriculture enterprises for Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois. The annual Entrepreneurial Agriculture Conference will be Dec. 4 at Sikeston, Mo.

Sessions during the day-long seminar will deal with new crops that could result in value-added components -- agri-forestry, new rice varieties, biodiesel, acquaculture (catfish, crawfish, shrimp) and fruits and vegetables grown for restaurants and wholesale buyers.

Alternatives for agriculture will also headline topics to be discussed during two workshops in Southern Illinois University-Carbondale Nov. 27 and 28. A special session will be devoted to acquaculture and shrimp farming in Illinois. During the past year, a number of farmers have raised giant shrimp for the market.

But back to heliciculture.

"We don't know of any area farmers raising snails," said Van H. Ayers, agriculture engineering specialist with the Stoddard County Outreach and Extension center at Bloomfield, Mo., who will be coordinating the workshop at Sikeston.

Snails, more commonly called escargot throughout fine restaurants of the United States and the world, are a status symbol food, normally served in garlic butter, for a pretty fair price -- from $6.50 to more than $20 for six.

And the market could get better say snail experts from Frescargot Farms of Sanger, Calif.

Frescargot officials envision escargot, now considered as an appetizer, to assume a role as a main dish, with a wide range of exotic products.

Snails are grown in special pens or enclosures. Snail farms may be outdoors, in buildings with a controlled climate, or in closed systems such as plastic tunnel houses or "greenhouses."

Temperatures are important to snails. Snails hibernate in cooler temperatures and growth stops. Preferred climates range from 60 to 75 degrees.

Frescargot estimates that 200 snails can result in more than 30,000 snails during the first year of production, up to about 1 million after three years.

Figure that at about 22 cents a snail, and you're looking a gross of $220,000, or an average of about $70,000 a year. That's in addition to selling off a few snails the second and third years to help with expenses.

There's more to raising snails though. Before purchasing a few hundred snails, you may want to check with some snail experts.

Another alternative crop

Meanwhile, a more popular alternative to agriculture products are sunflowers, a crop harvested for its seed.

The sunflower is now grown in every temperate region, including many parts of the U.S. where as many as 3 million acres are grown each year. About 85 percent of the sunflowers are used to produce oilseed. The rest are grown for whole-seed confectionery uses and bird feeds.

Seeds from the plant should be harvested as soon as they are mature or birds will quickly consume many of them.

North Dakota has been the leader in sunflower production, with a million acres a year. Nearly 20,000 acres were grown in Missouri in the late 1970s. Those totals are down now, but sunflowers are still a big crops in Southern Illinois and Southeast Missouri.

Sunflowers have been more popular in the Bootheel, but in recent years fields of the big plants have been appearing in Cape Girardeau and Perry counties. While brilliant yellow is still popular, colors can range from creamy white to bronze, mahogany, and even purple and orange shades, with some varieties offering bicolors.

As a snack food, sunflower seeds are normally salted and roasted. For those who do not want to add salt, they may be roasted. Seeds are spread in a shallow tray with oil, butter or a little salt and roasted at 250 degrees until golden brown, stirring occasionally.

Acreage of sunflowers in Missouri is expected to increase in the future as more farmers grow the crop for in-state birdseed markets. More than 150 Missouri farmers and crop advisers have attended workshops and meetings on sunflowers this year, and sunflowers will be discussed at the Sikeston conference next month.

The birdseed market for sunflowers has been increasing steadily over the past decade, said Ayers.

Sunflowers can be planted and harvested using existing grain crop equipment, Most farmers plant them in 30 to 38 inch wide rows to allow for weed cultivation or to use a row crop header at harvest. Missouri producers can grow sunflowers as a single crop, or double crop them after wheat. Compared to double crop soybeans, sunflowers reach maturity more quickly, which means they can be planted up to 10 days later than soybeans.

Sunflowers are also more tolerant of an early fall frost. Missouri sunflowers planted in early June yielded about 2000 pounds per acre for the better varieties, and about 1,500 to 1,600 pounds per acre when planted as a double crop after wheat in July.

The sunflower is believed to have been domesticated from wild sunflowers around 1000 B.C. in the western U.S. As can be seen along most Missouri roadsides in mid-to-late summer, wild sunflower is highly branched with small heads and small seeds, in contrast to the large seed head of domesticated sunflowers.

Ray Owen is the business editor for the Southeast Missourian.

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