Ric Brewer spends his weekends hunched over his garden, tending to what he calls “the original slow food.”
“I guess you’d call me a snail rancher,” said Brewer, the only snail farmer in Washington state, and possibly in the U.S.
For the past two years, Brewer has been raising snails for escargot at his Little Gray Farms Escargotiere in Quilecene where he spends his weekends. During the week, he teaches CrossFit classes in Seattle. But even when he’s miles away, Brewer’s mind is on his snails “every single second.”
“I lay there at night, thinking,” he said.
Growing at Brewer’s farm are some 5,000 Heli aspersa Muller snails, the brown snails often found in Northwest gardens and one of two types used for escargot. In fact, his mother and her friends went looking in their own gardens for the hundreds of snails Brewer used as the founding stock.
Once these starters laid eggs, Brewer’s obsession began. He boxed up the clusters of eggs in plastic containers and took them to Seattle with him, afraid predators might get to them.
“We had several thousand (eggs) stacked up in our condo,” said the Chimacum High grad, adding his partner, whom he describes as city mouse to his country mouse, graciously tolerated the intrusion.
After those eggs hatched and the snails grew, he moved them back to the farm and provided shade, moisture, and plants. Brewer grows the snails’ feed himself from organic seed. He also feeds them a supplement that helps their shells stay healthy.
“This has been the year of finding out what’s the best way to make a snail spa, so they enjoy themselves the most, so they reproduce the most, so they become big and fat, and happy,” he said, adding snails are much more fickle than he first thought. “I’m trying my darndest to spoil the heck out of them.”
The snails live in a large planter of vegetables they enjoy, like kale and broccoli. A 9-volt battery-powered fence around the planter keeps the snails in and intruders out.
“This way, I know exactly where they’ve been, exactly what they’ve eaten, the entire life process that they’ve done,” he said. “They can collect heavy metals and pesticides in their system, and up here, I can guarantee that’s not going to happen.”
Come winter, Brewer will move the snails, one by one, into a greenhouse to keep them from hibernating.
Learning the snails’ pace
For Brewer, his experimentation into snail farming has been one long exercise in patience. After two years of research and numerous trials and errors, he is just now preparing to sell his first batch of escargot. Snails take 12 to 18 months to mature to marketable size.
“Everything about it is slow. It’s very hands-on,” said Brewer. “I’ve been taking it step by step, trying to learn from them what patience means.”
The snails’ pace is a challenge for Brewer, whose weekends are filled, from dawn to dusk, with chores around the farm. But from time to time, Brewer manages to slow down. He often finds himself watching the snails for long spells, simply mesmerized.
“I’ll just stay out here and stare at them, and just watch them for more than I need to,” said Brewer. “I‘m still just very intrigued by these animals … and just how they get along in life.”
One of the most intriguing behaviors of snails is their mating behavior, which involves shooting calcium “love darts” into each other’s heads as foreplay, says Brewer.
”They’ll intertwine, and they have this very elaborate courtship that they do. And it’s very snail-sexy, I guess,” said Brewer. “They’ll shoot these darts, and they (researchers) believe it’s to indicate they’re receptive to mating. They’re (the darts are) remarkably large. I mean, I wouldn’t want to get stabbed in the head with that.”
The hermaphroditic snails then take turns playing both the male role and the female role to inseminate each other, Brewer said. The snails can mate for up to eight hours at a time, storing semen from several mates to inseminate themselves when they’re ready.
“So they’re pretty much assured a date on a Saturday night,” Brewer said.
Let them eat snails!
Brewer himself has been a fan of escargot since the very first time he tried it. Back in high school, he had tagged along with the French Club to a fancy French restaurant in Seattle.
“Everyone bet me to eat snails, and so I did. And I just really liked’em, and just became really interested in them from then on,” he said.
In the following years, Brewer, whom his mother describes as a lifelong nature boy, often thought about raising snails before finally giving it a try in 2011.
So what do Brewer’s snails taste like?
“I like to liken them to the consistency of a butter clam with the flavor of a very woodsy mushroom,” he said.
Brewer enjoys the snails on pizza, in raviolis, in stew. He is determined to democratize the haute cuisine by breaking away from the traditional French preparation with ample butter and garlic.
“Because as a protein, you can use them in so many different ways,” he said. “I want to make them less an elite food and more of an everyday type of food.”
For those weary of eating snails, Brewer reminds them they’re not unlike clams, and no worse than the everyday things most people eat.
“It’s no grosser than eating a part of a cow, so why not take advantage of something that’s become a problem and turn it into a positive?” he said.
And it seems many are willing to do just that. Several cooking clubs have pre-ordered Brewer’s first batch of snails. Seattle-area chefs, including Tom Douglas, have expressed interest in buying them. And Brewer is working with Seattle-based Eat Local to develop recipes for pre-made dishes that might work for the shop.
“I think people should always be willing to try something new. You never know when you’re going to find something that you really enjoy, and I think this is certainly something a lot of people can be very surprised by how good it is,” Brewer said.
The snail farmer hopes to grow his operation to 50,000 snails and make “at least a modicum of living.” Until then, he says the joy of the process itself will be reward enough.
“It’s my idea of heaven over here, you know, digging and hammering, and building, and mowing. I just enjoy doing that,” he said.
What Snails Sound Like
Brewer took this video after releasing his snails for the first time after a long winter last spring.
The sounds you hear are of the snails “tasting,” says Brewer.
“There are a few sounds: the sounds of their shells clicking together; the tasting by their radulae (toothed tongues); and the ‘squoosh’ of their slime,” he said.