Polish born and bred, Eva Milka moved to Ireland at the end of 2005 to work in the hospitality industry. However, things took an unexpected turn with the establishment of Gaelic Escargot some years later, after tasting snails for the first time abroad. It all began as a hobby in a one-bed apartment where Eva and her partner Eoin, who farms part time, wanted to experiment with the delicacy.
Established in 2013 as Ireland’s first snail farm, the enterprise has developed into a research and development centre for snail farming in Ireland. Trading with Middle Eastern markets, breeding and training upcoming snail farmers are also part of the mission. Eva and Eoin are currently producing 10 tonnes of snails per year, but eager to increase their enterprise’s figures.
Growing up in urban southern Poland, surrounded by over 250,000 people, city girl Eva admits that when she told her parents she was thinking of farming snails, “they nearly had a heart attack.”
“I didn’t realise it until I came here but I think farming was in my blood from the very beginning. I would not have been able to force it if I didn’t feel this passionate. Now I could not stick an office job, that would kill me,” says Eva.
After the initial shock wore off, Eva’s family offered her their full support. Both her dad and mum love to help Eva on the farm.
The challenges that came with being the leader of snail farming in Ireland meant plenty of mistakes were made along the way. The 36-year-old quickly learned that being the prime mover in her field meant there were no practices in place for her to learn from.
Contrasting geographical conditions to her home country meant that any knowledge Eva took from Poland was not applicable in Ireland.
“I foolishly believed I could spend some time in Poland learning to farm snails and take the knowledge back to Ireland with me. Shortly after starting though, I realised that the Polish breeding system did not work in Ireland because the weather is so different. So, the first year was an absolute disaster because of one very simple mistake we made,” Eva admits.
Developing a breeding method to suit Irish weather has been difficult but vital for Eva’s success, with a lot of trial and error.
“I love to think of myself as a pioneer and the mother of snail farming in Ireland but the truth is we were really guinea pigs,” she says.
Eva addresses the common misconceptions of snail farming: “People think it will make you an instant millionaire. It takes a lot of hard work and failure first. It is a way of life – you have to love it and give your heart to it. Every year is different and a challenge but it is doable and it is profitable,” she says.
“There are so many things that can go wrong. People love cutting corners, but jumping into things doesn’t work. You have to put good infrastructure in place because it is impossible to produce properly without it. The most common mistake beginners make is forcing things over night. It is a long-term project.
“We were so lucky to have the Carlow Enterprise Office behind us all the way, who helped us out a lot.”
Plans for the future are well underway as Eva and Eoin are currently looking to purchase a new premises to expand, with hopes to begin trading in France, Spain and Italy, where the biggest markets lie.
Other ideas in the pipeline include developing their very own recipe for snails in brine, completing and launching their official training manual and working alongside Irish prison centres to introduce their line of work as a therapeutic activity for prisoners.
“If we could split ourselves in four we would grab every opportunity. Instead, we focus on doing just one thing and doing it right before moving onto the next venture,” says Eva.
Eva’s dream goal is to help create a centralised marketing hub in Ireland where everyone can come together and market from one place. For her, collaboration is key in sustaining and improving the industry.
Advice from Eva is plentiful. For any active or aspiring woman out there with a grá for agriculture, this unlikely farmer admits that while “some people may laugh”, most are encouraging and supportive “so don’t be pushed back because you are a woman in farming”.
“Farming is good for the mind and body. But it does get very lonely, so working with people and networking makes it easier and less lonely. This is why the South East Women in Farming group is absolutely great,” she says.
“Don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is not the opposite to success, it is part of it. Nothing is impossible. If you don’t know something, go online. Stubbornness, persistence and passion are all you need really.”
Delighted with her own achievements to date, Eva is excited for the diverse future for women and men in Irish agriculture.
“Remember,” she finishes with a smile, “you don’t have to be great to start but you have to start to be great.”