Farm­ing on wa­ter gains mo­men­tum

Oys­ter aqua­cul­ture con­tin­ues to grow here

The Enterprise - - Front Page - By DANDAN ZOU dzou@somd­news.com

As the first “R” month, Septem­ber marks the be­gin­ning of the oys­ter sea­son — or at least it used to in the tra­di­tional sense. Thanks to re­frig­er­a­tion as well as a grow­ing oys­ter aqua­cul­ture in­dus­try, farmed oys­ters are avail­able year round.

In re­cent years, aqua­cul­ture — the process of plant­ing and grow­ing oys­ters for har­vest — has sig­nif­i­cantly re­shaped the land­scape of the oys­ter in­dus­try, some­thing that has cre­ated op­por­tu­ni­ties and con­flicts, in­spired op­ti­mism and sus­pi­cion, raised en­thu­si­asm and ques­tions. Aqua­cul­ture does not nec­es­sar­ily seek to re­place the tra­di­tional pub­lic wild har­vest that Mary­land wa­ter­men re­lied on for so many decades, but surely will have an im­pact on it.

“This is how we pro­duce food in the world now,” said Jon Far­ring­ton, an oys­ter farmer in St. Leonard. “It’s not just the oys­ters.”

Far­ring­ton be­came a full­time oys­ter farmer in 2007 af­ter grow­ing oys­ters as a “gar­dener.” What con­vinced him about the vi­a­bil­ity of the in­dus­try was what

‘This whole oys­ter thing just got legs’

he saw hap­pen­ing in Vir­ginia.

The value of oys­ters re­mained the same even when pro­duc­tion vol­ume con­tin­ued to in­crease, he said. That told him the de­mand for oys­ters was com­men­su­rate with the sup­ply, sug­gest­ing there’s more room for the mar­ket to ex­pand.

In the past few years, Far­ring­ton has used “oys­ters” as the key­word for his Google news alerts. He gets a re­minder when­ever a new raw oys­ter bar opens some­where and ap­pears in a lo­cal news­pa­per. What he has seen is oys­ter bars pop­ping up in var­i­ous places. One of them, he re­called, was in Omaha, Neb.

“This whole oys­ter thing just got legs,” he said. “I saw in [aqua­cul­ture] a pot of gold at the end of the rain­bow.”

De­spite of the risks as­so­ci­ated with start­ing a new ca­reer and in­vest­ing in a new in­dus­try, Far­ring­ton was “cer­tain” it would work. Many share his faith. Over the past few years, the Mary­land Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources has seen a steady flow of new ap­pli­ca­tions, sug­gest­ing more peo­ple are get­ting into the in­dus­try or ex­pand­ing their ex­ist­ing op­er­a­tion.

Af­ter 2009 when leas­ing reg­u­la­tions were rewrit­ten, “it’s al­most like a re­birth” for an in­dus­try that ex­isted for many decades on a small scale, said Matt Parker, an aqua­cul­ture busi­ness spe­cial­ist at the Univer­sity of Mary­land Ex­ten­sion.

Wild har­vests cur­rently dwarf aqua­cul­ture oys­ters in Mary­land, Parker said, not­ing he doesn’t think aqua­cul­ture is go­ing to move into the lead in the im­me­di­ate fu­ture.

His­tor­i­cally, the pub­lic wild oys­ters fish­ery plum­meted from a record of 15 mil­lion bushels in the mid-1880s to 224,000 bushels in the past sea­son — an amount that is still four times the vol­ume pro­duced by oys­ter farm­ing.

But as wild har­vests fluc­tu­ate year to year in re­cent decades, farmed oys­ters have grown more than 1,000 per­cent since 2012 to be­come a $5 mil­lion in­dus­try.

In the first half of this year alone, farm­ing has pro­duced more than 34,000 bushels of oys­ters, and is cer­tain to sur­pass last year’s 64,000 bushels, said Karl Roscher, act­ing man­ager and aqua­cul­ture co­or­di­na­tor of DNR’s aqua­cul­ture and in­dus­try en­hance­ment di­vi­sion.

Re­ceiv­ing about 440 ap­pli­ca­tions since 2010, DNR has is­sued more than 220 new leases as of July, to­tal­ing nearly 5,000 acres.

Of all coun­ties, St. Mary’s and Dorch­ester have been lead­ing the pack so far. St. Mary’s holds 96 leases — the most in the state, ac­count­ing for a quar­ter of all leases is­sued statewide. Acreage-wise, St. Mary’s comes in sec­ond with 850 acres, be­hind Dorch­ester County, which has nearly 2,500 acres leased.

As of July, neigh­bor­ing Calvert County has 13 leases, to­tal­ing 137 acres. Charles County has just two oys­ter leases cov­er­ing 39 acres.

‘Aqua­cul­ture is restora­tion’

So far, the state is­sues two types of leases, cor­re­spond­ing to two types of farm­ing op­er­a­tions.

With bot­tom leases, peo­ple typ­i­cally plant spat-on-shells, at­tach­ing baby oys­ters to empty shells and leav­ing them to grow in creeks and rivers un­til they reach har­vestable mar­ket size, not much dif­fer­ent from the process of wild har­vest.

Wa­ter col­umn lease­hold­ers can place cages in the wa­ter. They pro­duce bet­ter re­sults, but also re­quire sig­nif­i­cantly more man­power and in­vest­ment. Usu­ally this type of op­er­a­tion has a ded­i­cated staff han­dling the oys­ters on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

Founded by Tal Petty in 2010, the Hol­ly­wood Oys­ter Co. is con­sid­ered one of the three largest pro­duc­ers in the re­gion, along with True Ch­e­sa­peake Oys­ter Co. and 38° North Oys­ters. Petty said he his part­ner, Caleb Mar­shall, have in­vested hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol- lars — a mix­ture of loans and per­sonal sav­ings — into the com­pany.

In Petty’s eyes, oys­ter farm­ing is all about in­ven­tory man­age­ment. He has 15 full-time em­ploy­ees who work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mon­day through Fri­day to sort, sift and main­tain the cages as well as pack the oys­ters.

Sell­ing more than 1 mil­lion oys­ters a year na­tion­wide, of which 20 per­cent go to cus­tomers in Mary­land, Petty said his big­gest chal­lenge is to man­age the farm in a way that would al­low his com­pany to be a re­li­able sup­plier.

Hol­ly­wood Oys­ter Co. doesn’t sell di­rectly to cus­tomers. Once har­vested, washed and packed, oys­ters are gen­er­ally loaded in cases and trans­ported to Jes­sup to a large seafood dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ter, where they await more travel to places as far as the West Coast.

A for­mer vice pres­i­dent for a small com­pany’s sales and mar­ket­ing di­vi­sion in Bethesda, Petty sees him­self as “a farmer and a small-busi­ness per­son.”

His mar­ket­ing mind tells him the im­por­tance of brand­ing, to pro­vide a “known, pre­dictable com­mod­ity prod­uct” so that cus­tomers can ex­pect a cer­tain taste as­so­ci­ated with the brand, and the lo­ca­tion that pro­duced it.

For many farm­ers, fig­ur­ing out a busi­ness model takes time and may never end. Oys­ter farms in the re­gion of­ten vary in size and mis­sion, re­flect­ing the own­ers’ pri­or­i­ties and vi­sions.

For Brian Russell and his three fel­low co-founders, his fa­ther, Shel­don Russell, Kevin Boyle and Mandy Burch, at Shore Thing Shell­fish based in Tall Tim­bers, restora­tion is what got the team hooked.

Brian Russell, Boyle and Burch all have bi­ol­ogy de­grees from St. Mary’s Col­lege of Mary­land. They also all worked at DNR’s aqua­cul­ture fa­cil­ity in Piney Point at dif­fer­ent times.

“Aqua­cul­ture is restora­tion,” the younger Russell said.

Shore Thing Shell­fish grows oys­ters in St. Ge­orge Creek, sells them to cus­tomers and restau­rants, and does restora­tion projects and field trips to teach oth­ers about oys­ters and the en­vi­ron­ment. They also sell oys­ter seed to other farm­ers and floats to home­own­ers.

For Boyle, what he wants is a job that will al­low him to make a liv­ing, build things, be out­doors, help the en­vi­ron­ment and have the op­por­tu­nity to teach oth­ers about oys­ters.

Af­ter five years, Brian Russell said the com­pany is com­ing along.

“It’s like any small busi­ness. It took about five years,” he said. “This year, we are see­ing a turn.”

Grow­ing oys­ters takes pa­tience. But once it gets go­ing, farm­ers be­lieve they will get their money back in the long run.

“It ap­pears to be a sus­tain­able, new type of busi­ness” that also cleans the river and cre­ates jobs, said Mike Sul­li­van, a Charles County de­vel­oper who helps run what he be­lieves is the only all-fe­male-owned oys­ter farm­ing op­er­a­tion in the re­gion.

The lease be­longs to his two daugh­ters, Shannon Sul­li­van, chief of staff for a state sen­a­tor, and Lauren Posey, a lawyer, as well as a fam­ily friend, Ce­lene Graves, who used to go fish­ing, crab­bing and oys­ter­ing with her fa­ther, a wa­ter­man.

With one lease ap­proved and one pend­ing, Sul­li­van said their op­er­a­tion is still young. There’s no har­vest yet as baby oys­ters were planted in the Wi­comico River near Dolly Boar­man Creek ear­lier this year. But when they do har­vest, many will go to Graves’ Capt. Billy’s Crab House in Faulkner for sale.

The rest? They are still try­ing to fig­ure it out.

‘We need to be proac­tive’

“The fu­ture of oys­ters is oys­ter farm­ing,” said Petty, a self-de­scribed oys­ter farm­ing “evan­ge­list.”

In Petty’s view, oys­ter farm­ing is a new form of equip­ment, like tongs and dredges. It’s just a dif­fer­ent way to get oys­ters.

The new type of op­er­a­tion breaks away from the tra­di­tion- al way of wild har­vest where oys­ter­men go out on the wa­ter to find and gather oys­ters. Over the years, the farm­ing in­dus­try has at­tracted many busi­ness-minded peo­ple from back­grounds like mar­ket­ing, science and en­gi­neer­ing.

Most oys­ter farm­ers who are into cage cul­ture are “mid­dle-class, white males who have col­lege de­grees,” said Kel­ton Clark, for­mer di­rec­tor of the Patux­ent En­vi­ron­men­tal and Aquatic Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory at the Morgan State Univer­sity based in St. Leonard.

To dif­fer­ent farm­ers, aqual­cul­ture means dif­fer­ent things — from a chance to make a liv­ing or a sec­ond ca­reer to a re­tire­ment project or an op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate some­thing for the greater good.

De­scrib­ing oys­ter farm­ers as “en­tre­pre­neur­ial peo­ple that are will­ing to take the risk,” Far­ring­ton said the com­mon thread he sees is peo­ple’s pas­sion for par­tic­i­pat­ing in a new in­dus­try that has the abil­ity to pro­duce food with pub­lic ben­e­fit.

“Not only are we gen­er­at­ing in­come for our­selves, we are also help­ing the so­ci­ety at large,” Far­ring­ton said, re­fer­ring to oys­ters’ abil­ity to fil­ter wa­ter.

Far­ring­ton de­scribes him­self as an “in­ven­tor farmer.” With a de­gree in aero­space en­gi­neer­ing from Vir­ginia Tech, Far­ring­ton used to write soft­ware codes for de­fense com­pa­nies to make a liv­ing.

With some state fund­ing, his main fo­cus now is to de­velop new equip­ment that lessens the man­power re­quired in oys­ter op­er­a­tions and makes the grow­ing process more ef­fi­cient. An en­gi­neer at heart, he is al­ways think­ing about if there is a bet­ter way of do­ing things.

What con­cerns Far­ring­ton is the kind of “tun­nel vi­sion” in the in­dus­try.

As vice pres­i­dent of the Mary­land Shell­fish Grow­ers As­so­ci­a­tion formed in 2015, Far­ring­ton said he thinks what the in­dus­try needs the most is to pull to­gether to push for shared goals.

At the early stage of run­ning a busi­ness, “ev­ery­body is try­ing to find their own place, so I un­der­stand,” he said. But “for the in­dus­try to ma­ture enough, we need to be proac­tive.” Clark agrees. For in­di­vid­ual com­pa­nies, they may know what their goal is five years down the road. But col­lec­tively as an in­dus­try, as far as he knows, Clark said there is no long-term plan.

Like many oys­ter farm­ers, Clark has no doubt that oys­ter aqua­cul­ture is only go­ing to be­come larger.

In his view, “it is an eco­nomic ex­plo­sion wait­ing for the will — and the vi­sion to ig­nite it.” Com­ing Fri­day: the strug­gle be­tween aqua­cul­ture ad­vo­cates and tra­di­tional wa­ter­men.

STAFF PHOTO BY DANDAN ZOU

Kevin Boyle pulls a cage of oys­ters out of the wa­ter on St. Ge­orge Creek on Aug. 22.

STAFF PHOTO BY DANDAN ZOU

An­to­nio Gon­za­lez sorts through oys­ters Aug. 31 near Dolly Boar­man Creek in Charles County. He is one of three full-time em­ploy­ees hired at the aqua­cul­ture op­er­a­tion.

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