The nascent Great Bay oyster farm industry has been picking up speed in recent years, growing to eight current farms and garnering the interest of local foodies. Many of these farmers are entirely new to the process, trying to navigate the complexities of starting a new business without a lot of background knowledge that might help streamline some of their operations.
Following on the heels of last autumn’s roundtable discussion about opportunities and challenges for Great Bay oyster farmers, shellfish growers from Maine and N.H. attended a recent discussion about best management practices on shellfish farms. The workshop was held at the Urban Forestry Center in Portsmouth, N.H., on Jan. 28th and was sponsored by UNH Cooperative Extension, N.H. Sea Grant, the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, the N.H. Farm Service Agency and Extension Risk Management Education — Northeast Center. Researchers, extension specialists and industry experts presented information to the workshop attendees about methods to guide their business plan, minimize their risks and possibly improve their revenues.
Marketing local seafood and telling the story
Charlie French, UNH Cooperative Extension professor, shared the results from his NHSG-funded research on alternative seafood marketing. His research indicated that although consumers place importance on local seafood, simply being local isn’t enough, he said. People are only willing to pay a premium if the seafood is of high quality. That means taking utmost care to keep the shellfish cold from harvest to point of sale.
Some of the shellfish growers in the audience noted that they sell their product at farmer’s markets. French said that while they might not sell a lot of volume at that venue, farmer’s markets are great places to generate a buzz about their product and learning who grows their food. He encouraged the growers to tell their story, let the public get to know the farmers and their food, and collaborate with other people and organizations who want to promote that story.
Shellfish growers forming a united front
The last time these shellfish growers met, there was discussion about the potential to form a co-op. Michael Chambers, NHSG/UNHCE marine aquaculture specialist, asked if the growers had discussed this any further in the time since that meeting. A few of the growers spoke up, saying they felt that a co-op was unnecessary, but that a loosely formed organization would be beneficial to help promote Great Bay oysters, present a unified front, work together to lobby for change in shellfish management decisions, but yet retain individual control over each of their companies and products.
Crop Disaster Assistance
One major decision the shellfish growers face is whether or not to apply for crop insurance. Linda Grames, program specialist from the N.H. Farm Service Agency spoke to the group about the USDA noninsured crop disaster assistance program. Although oysters aren’t technically covered under regular crop insurance, this program would provide financial assistance to shellfish growers who experience a significant loss of their crop due to weather-related events, including long spells of bitter cold weather and ice that wreak havoc on oyster farms. Disease outbreaks like Dermo and MSX would have to be linked to a weather event, such as drought, in order for oyster farmers to receive reimbursement for crop loss.
Insurance for crop revenues
Michael Sciabarrasi, UNHCE agricultural business management specialist, discussed adjusted gross revenue policies — a type of insurance that protects against variability in crop revenues due to natural disasters or market fluctuations. Because this program requires five years of production, most of the nascent Great Bay oyster farms do not currently qualify. However, Sciabarrassi noted that this type of insurance might be a worthwhile investment in the future. Managing risks will lessen the impact of catastrophic losses and reduce income variability, he said.
Farm management plans and best management practices
Three representatives from the East Coast ShellfishGrowers Association spoke to the workshop attendees about the importance of developing farm management plans and adhering to best management practices (BMPs). Gef Flimlin, Kathy Rhodes and Sandy MacFarlane of ECSGA explained that BMPs are a basic code of conduct — in the case of shellfish growers, BMPs could include items such as check your gear often, clean up any fuel spills you cause, use appropriate methods to control biofouling on the gear, help educate the public, and be good neighbors to other growers and nearby landowners. The ECSGA has already established a list of BMPs that local growers can adopt. These BMPs offer another advantage: they indicate the appropriate steps to take if a grower runs into trouble with a Vibrio outbreak or predator issues on their farms. If a grower is following the BMPs for the entire East Coast shellfish industry, it will demonstrate that they are operating their business in a responsible manner, Rhodes said.
MacFarlane spoke to the attendees about developing a farm management plan — an operating manual that documents how growers run their farm practices. A farm plan includes BMPs in its operations manual and helps minimize growers risks, placing them in a better position to receive funds through loans or crop insurance. It will also demonstrate to consumers that the shellfish grower is committed to environmental stewardship and a healthy product.
Thorough record-keeping is imperative
Throughout their presentation, the ECSGA representatives stressed the importance of good record-keeping. Flimlin suggested that the growers should purchase a temperature logger to place on their equipment so they can keep track of the water temperatures throughout the year. Using a secchi disk can help determine water clarity, he said, and it’s a good idea to record, either in written format or voice recording on a smartphone, the general conditions of their gear, how many juvenile oysters they stocked and anything else the growers notice while on their site and checking their crop.
For more information about these topics, please contact Michael Chambers at firstname.lastname@example.org.