If you want to get into the oyster business, you need nerves of steel.
Over the last decade, close to a dozen oyster farms have cropped up in Maryland and Virginia. Everything that could go wrong for them has gone wrong.
One farmer's oysters were stolen when he put them in an unmarked bed. Another tells of losing much of his early crop to cownose rays. Another encountered the parasite Dermo, which wiped out thousands of dollars of profits in a single season. Still others talked of long waits to acquire the permits to build their operations, or battles with neighbors who were not keen to see oyster floats interrupting their view.
But they stuck it out. Today, they are pioneers in oyster aquaculture, an industry that both Maryland and Virginia want to see grow.
Getting into the industry isn't an easy sell, especially to the Chesapeake Bay's dwindling number of watermen. The wild harvest they pursue can be unpredictable, but it's nothing compared with the uncertainty of aquaculture, where oyster farmers sink thousands of dollars into a crop they hope will be around next year.
"That's probably going to be the most difficult thing for some watermen, to go from being a harvester who gets up in the morning and takes what Mother Nature gave them to someone who is thinking ahead," said Don Webster, an extension agent at the University of Maryland who has been working to promote aquaculture for the last three decades. "It's farming, but it's more like planting an orchard."
Jim Wesson, who oversees oyster restoration efforts with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, said oyster farmers with a get-rich-quick mentality will be disappointed. It took Virginia 30 years to grow clam farms to a $30 million industry, and it will take oyster farmers at least as long to do the same.
"The ones that have been successful, they pay for things as they grow," Wesson said.
Maryland clam entrepreneur Steve Gordon said the key to success is persistence. He just won a five-year battle with a neighbor over the right to lease bottom in Chincoteague Bay. During his first year of planting clams, he lost most of his crop to hungry rays. Home-improvement projects had to wait as he poured money into upwellers - systems that not only protect shellfish from predators but pump cold water from the bottom, rich with phytoplankton, to feed the young clams.
Now, the Gordon family's Worcester County aqua farm is a showplace for prospective growers, and Gordon is so confident that he's branching out into oysters.
"Quite often, in the early years, it's trial and error," he said. "You don't always get it right the first time."
Here are profiles of six companies who seem to be doing it right, and an examination of how they've done it.
Editor's note: This is the second set of articles in a three-part series about Maryland and Virginia wading into oyster aquaculture. Read Part One and Part Three.
Next month: watermen who are entering the business.