Farming on water gains momentum
Oyster aquaculture continues to grow here
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.
Kevin Boyle pulls a cage of oysters out of the water on St. George Creek on Aug. 22.
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.