Oyster farms on the Damariscotta River continue to grow and harvest oysters, but are adjusting their business strategies to account for restaurant closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For example, farms are using online stores – normally for shipping oysters over long distances – to arrange curbside pickup for local customers.
Glidden Point Oyster Farms, of Edgecomb, has a refrigerator available where customers can pick up online orders, according to General Manager Jonathan Turcotte.
“We already had our online store, but after this happened, we started using it for pickup as opposed to just shipping. We ship to people all over – the company has always done that – and now we are offering a contact-free pickup option too,” Turcotte said.
Turcotte said the company is harvesting at a lower rate than it would in a normal spring.
“We are harvesting much less than we would typically be doing for this time of year. Most of our business goes to restaurants and wholesale. We are right about at half of our typical production level,” Turcotte said.
Turcotte said Glidden Point has partnered with other local businesses to get their products to The Lost Kitchen’s drive-thru farmers market in Freedom and has distributed oysters to Portland’s Allagash Brewing Co.
The company is donating a portion of all sales from its online store to the Full Plates, Full Potential Emergency Fund, set up to support public school districts in Maine that continue to feed students during school closures.
Chris Davis co-owns Pemaquid Oyster Co., which has farmed oysters on the Damariscotta River since the 1980s.
“We started an online seafood program and that drew a lot of interest,” Davis said. Customers can place orders for pickup from a company facility at 1005 Bristol Road in Bristol.
Nonetheless, Davis said the pandemic and resulting restaurant closures have had a significant impact.
“We are all feeling it right now. Most of our sales go to restaurants,” Davis said.
“We are continuing to harvest at a reduced rate,” Davis said, and the company is keeping its employees working as farming continues.
“In 35 years, there has been nothing quite like this. We had a disease in 2010 that killed a lot of oysters, but it did not come on all at once,” Davis said.
On the Medomak River in Bremen, Community Shellfish continues to farm oysters and is using a mail-order system to replace some of the revenue lost due to restaurant closures.
The company raises its Cora Cressey oysters in lobster pounds off Keene Neck Road, according to owner Boe Marsh.
“We are going through the motions at the moment, keeping things going at our aquaculture facility,” Marsh said.
“Oysters tend to be a restaurant item, but there has been value in sending them through the mail for people to prepare and enjoy at home. It’s not the same volume we would be doing if restaurants were open, but there is some transition of oysters from a restaurant item to something to be enjoyed at home,” Marsh said.
Marsh said his company is also offering pickup and shipping of frozen scallops and frozen lobster.
While local oyster farmers adapt to keep some level of oysters going out and revenue coming in, the Maine aquaculture industry is working with the state’s congressional delegation to qualify oyster farmers for relief through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. The program involves direct support to farmers and the government purchase and distribution of $3 billion in fresh dairy, meat, and produce.
“The COVID-19 crisis has ravaged aquaculture farms far worse than any storm we have experienced; while we are used to working in an unforgiving environment, the pandemic has led to unprecedented losses and an even more precarious future for our farms,” Jeff Auger, of Mook Sea Farm, said in an April 28 press release from Maine’s congressional delegation.
The East Coast Shellfish Growers Association estimates that 90% of oysters are eaten in restaurants, according to a letter from all four members of Maine’s congressional delegation to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.
Oyster sales brought in $11 million for Maine farmers last year. Now, those farmers “are in dire need of assistance,” the delegation said.
Perdue responded to the congressional delegation by letter Monday, May 11. The letter did not explicitly address the eligibility of oyster farmers for relief from the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act allows the U.S. Department of Commerce to provide relief to the aquaculture industry, Perdue said in the letter. The USDA is engaging with the Department of Commerce as both agencies implement programs that impact the industry.
“USDA stands ready to work with you to implement solutions that will help ensure the health and safety of American agriculture,” Perdue said.