East Coast Oyster Farmers Look for New Markets in the Midwest

Feb 7, 2019  | 6 min  | Ep4425

Long before the current list of tariffs limited trade, farmers have taken the value-added route and further processed their products for a little more profit.

This has been true for their counterparts in aquaculture where land and sea meet for more opportunity.

John Torpy has more in our Cover Story.

 
Dave Roebuck, Owner, Salt Pond Oyster Company:”It's like planting potatoes. We buy our seed every year. We plant them every year. We harvest them two or three years later and we just try to keep that crop rotation going.”
 
     Point Judith Pond, on the east coast of Rhode Island, has been home for Dave Roebuck’s Salt Pond Oyster Company since 2002. His aquaculture lineage dates back to the 1920’s, when family members harvested wild oysters. Nearly one hundred years later, Roebuck is feeling a squeeze on the pond, as more entrepreneurs are raking in the oyster business.  
 
     In 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated oyster farming added $192 million to an aquaculture market that topped $1.5 billion in sales.
Dave Roebuck, Owner, Salt Pond Oyster Company:” So the main thing about aquaculture is sustainability. It differs from the wild fishery where as the commercial fishing boats are dependent on the wild catch. Basically, they're at the mercy of the government and their regulations./And so with us, it's sustainable.
 
      According to the Coastal Resources Management Council with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, oyster farming in Rhode Island has grown 143 percent since 2007, with 73 farms selling more than 8 million oysters annually. The growth of east coast aquaculture has put a squeeze on market share, leaving producers looking west to capture new markets.
Dave Roebuck, Owner, Salt Pond Oyster Company:”What we need to do as oyster farmers is get our product to people in the Midwest. Take our markets on the coast and spread them out to the, to the Midwest so that we don't have an abundance of product that we're trying to sell and compete against other farmers in restaurants, from Maine to Florida. We need to get people in the Midwest or to enjoy eating oysters.”
 
     Instead of following traditional sales models, many oyster farmers are taking on all the elements in the production chain, from upwell nurseries all the way to the restaurant table. Rather than selling the oysters to a wholesaler, entrepreneurs are delivering their product directly to their customer base. One example of Salt Pond Oyster Company’s diversified oyster sales portfolio is Roebuck’s Schuck and Truck.
Dave Roebuck, Owner, Salt Pond Oyster Company:“So we were trying to figure out how we could get that, that end value for our product. /And we said, how about an oyster food truck? And we kind of looked up and there was no such thing as an oyster food truck, so we thought it would be a good idea./ So it actually caught on pretty good. And we do now we're, booked pretty much from June until the end of September.”
 
     Opened in 2011, his food truck has been a staple for small town festivals all along the east coast.
   
     For the better part of three decades, the Hanke family has been offering fresh seafood in the middle of the country. Shawn Hanke, owner of Waterfront Seafood Market, uses his experience as a commercial fisherman to bring the freshest products possible to his seafood counters and restaurants in Des Moines, Iowa and Omaha, Nebraska. 
Shawn Hanke, Owner, Waterfront Seafood Market:”Through all the years we've been here we just go right to the source, either fisherman, or the docks where the boats unload, 90 plus percent of the time is where our seafood comes from and it's, you know, quality is, is the key.” 
 
     Roebuck and Hanke see the biggest challenges for growing the seafood market in the Midwest are affordable and timely transportation.
 
Dave Roebuck, Owner, Salt Pond Oyster Company;”We can figure out the shipping because the shipping is, is pretty simple to do. We have air, air freight and we have a refrigerated trucks that drive to Chicago everyday out of Boston so we can get our product there.” 
 
Shawn Hanke, Owner, Waterfront Seafood Market:” I don't want to charge our customers a fortune to eat these oysters. So I try to keep my cost down the best I can. So you've got a truck ‘em. Because they're too heavy to fly. They go by weight. So you've got to find a truck and I think that's going to be your east coast guys biggest problem is getting them to big cities. No problem. Refrigerated trucks, but any smaller places, you know, it's just getting a truck to get it there.” 
 
     One of the east coast locations for Hanke’s supply might be Delton, Maryland where agriculture is meeting aquaculture. Along the banks of the Choptank River, some grain farmers are adding oysters to the list of commodities they produce. Using a grant designed by NRCS, the land and sea farmers work with USDA officials to help improve the quality of the river water -- which many producers use for irrigation -- and add to their bottom line. 
Bobby Leonard, Maryland Farmer:” We’ve created a really good environment for oysters to grow. Plus, all the other little critters that are out there, it gives everything out there a place to hide. Plus,it helps filter the water./ :”We farm the land, we farm the water, we farm the bottom under the water.” 
 
     Hanke will continue his search for the best seafood at a good price while relying on his regular sources of fresh product.
Shawn Hanke, Owner, Waterfront Seafood:“I would try anybody that wants to give me a sample and I'll let my customers try 'em. I'll try ‘em ya know. We try them and then we make a decision./I just try to keep whatever the customer's happy with. That's what counts.”
 
     Niche’ markets aside, Roebuck is continuing his search for other pathways to get his product out of a crowded marketplace and farther inland.
Dave Roebuck, Owner, Salt Pond Oyster Company:” We need people to catch on to the, to the, uh, the healthiness and sustainability of oyster farming.”
 
     For Market to Market, I’m John Torpy

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