On a tour hosted by Fair Food, the NJ Department of Agriculture, Keystone Development Center and the New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium, a group of Philadelphia and New Jersey’s seafood chefs and buyers were given a lesson on “conception to consumption” - the three year process it takes to get a delicate oyster to their plates, only to disappear in one slurp.
While the biodiverse flats of Cape May have long been a home to oyster production, a new form of the industry is spawning in the area, as growers are forming a cooperative to better market their unique product. The Haskins Shellfish Research Laboratory has been operating in the bay since the early 1900s. In the 1950s, a major disease threatened the future of oyster production in the area, and breeding research to produce disease resistant varieties saved the livelihood of many of these farmers. Rutgers University Cooperative Extension and their Aquaculture Innovation Center continues to work with shellfish growers in the region to develop more sustainable and efficient methods for production.
Up the coast in Atlantic County, clams are grown in the saltier ocean waters. The clam farm visited on the tour had a hatchery producing tens of millions of microscopic clams, to be grown to maturity on site or sold to other farmers in the area as seed.
Many restaurateurs in Philadelphia and New Jersey have found it difficult to source oysters and clams from the nearby waters. Distributors continue to source the bulk of their product from Virginia, where the farms are larger and the prices are lower. Currently two cooperatives are forming, among eight oyster farms on Cape May and five clam farms in Atlantic County, who hope to use their combined resources to better control the sale of their product, and create their own distribution channels, selling direct to consumers, stores and restaurants.
Stephanie Kane is Local Product Coordinator at Weavers Way Co-op. When she's not out visiting farms, she writes about food and sustainability for Weavers Way's newspaper The Shuttle.