MENTION farming in Brazil, and everyone thinks coffee. But a group of farmers spread throughout a Brazilian state roughly the size of Britain are shunning such traditional crops in favour of a special mission – to turn European taste buds onto the flavour of frog.
Though big in France, frog meat has never really caught on in Britain, perhaps because we famously prefer a hearty meal to a plate of nibbles. Now, under the leadership of veteran farmer Haroldo Ribeiro da Silva, almost 70 breeders of these cold-blooded amphibians have made a joint investment of around £120,000 and created what will be Brazils largest frog meat producer. Not only do they aim to halve the cost of meat within a year, but they are also setting their sights on foreign markets with dreams of giant export contracts.
The co-operative, named Cooravap from ra, the Portuguese for frog, is based at the end of a dusty dirt track on the outskirts of Tremembe, a tiny town 90 miles from Sao Paulo, Brazils economic capital. Surrounded by lush countryside, including the eight acres which are still home to Haroldos small herd of 15 dairy cattle, the only noise breaking the rural silence is the sound of workmen putting the finishing touches to the co-ops purpose-built cold store, freezer and slaughterhouse. Once completed, it should be able to slaughter, freeze and pack 5000 animals a day, or about 200t over a year.
Haroldo, 67, says: "Breeding frogs isnt difficult. You need a hot climate, plenty of good quality water and a plastic-covered greenhouse where you can maintain the temperature at between 28 and 32C.
"The problem comes in slaughtering and marketing. Frog farmers find themselves on the road all the time because theres no one specialised to slaughter, pack and sell the meat. What have we done? Set up our own company, centralising the advantages."
Haroldos two greenhouses are home to 30,000 bull frogs, and he plans to produce 120,000 over the next 12 months. The breed is imported, partly because of the frogs size – they can grow to around 200g – and partly to protect native species from being hunted. They are fed on varying grades of basic animal feed, made of processed soya, sweetcorn and fish flour. Haroldo throws in a few maggots to train the frogs to eat. "They only go for things that move," he says. The greenhouses also house tadpole stocks, which are kept in tanks and fed on the same fare. Part of the stock is kept at low temperature, in super-high population and on low food rations to inhibit development and ensure a year-round supply of tadpoles. The biggest frogs are used for breeding, and kept in a separate pen, "the frog motel," Haroldo jokes.
Originally trained as a lawyer, he disliked office life and gave it up to pursue the family profession of farming. "Ive grown lots of different crops – coffee, sweetcorn and wheat, to name a few," he says. "Ive also run dairy farms and raised pigs and chickens.
"But Ive always wanted to do something a little bit more sophisticated. I bought this land and found it had a freshwater spring on it, so I thought about farming shrimp, then trout. Neither were feasible, so I settled on frogs."
That was five years go, and it seems he made the right choice. The co-ops success will be based on its ability to sell practically every part of the animal – from meat to skin – which should give it the power to cut prevailing market prices for frog meat from around R$15 (£6) a kg to R$10 (£4) within the first month and R$8 (£3.20) after a year. The co-op is already lining up markets for the various sub-products – frog skins can be tanned and made into belts, shoes and gloves, and some hospitals coat them with antibiotics and use them to treat burns victims; frog intestines are being assessed as a possible source of surgical thread; frog liver makes a paté which, Haroldo says, rivals foie gras; frog fat is prized by the cosmetics industry and, finally, the animals head is used by glue makers.
Tastes like chicken
All that besides the meat, which is high in easily-digested protein and low in cholesterol (around 0.3%). It tastes like chicken but has a smoother texture more like fish. "Wherever you use chicken in a meal you can use frog meat in its place," says Haroldos wife, Maria Eugenia Ribeiro. Its easy to digest, so its particularly good for small children and babies."
Cooravap has been two years in the making, and thats only half the battle. In Europe, it will be competing with the worlds largest frog exporter, Indonesia, which already supplies France, the worlds biggest consumer. Lucky for Haroldo, other European countries such as Germany and Switzerland will only accept farmed frog meat. Indonesian frogs are hunted.
"We know these European markets demand high standards," says Haroldo, "but we know weve got what it takes to meet those demands. Were competent people. We know that barriers exist, that people see Brazil as a Third World country and so treat everything we do with suspicion, but were determined to win, to overcome that."