It was just before noon when Jon Farrington sat down at the Thames Street Oyster House, a box of Calvert Crest Oysters on his lap. He and his tablemates, Len Zuza of the Southern Maryland Oyster Cultivation Society and Steve Vilnit of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, ordered some beers, a couple of bowls of oyster stew and some salads.
And then they waited.
The trio was supposed to meet with the restaurant's chef so he could taste Farrington's farm-raised oysters, which the one-time aerospace engineer grows near his home in a creek off the Patuxent River. As the chef slurped the plump oyster, Zuza was going to make his pitch: For every oyster Thames Street buys from Farrington, the oyster farmer would replant two. One would go back on the oyster farm; the second would go into the vast grounds managed by Zuza's organization, which has planted more than 7 million oysters at its own expense. Vilnit was on hand in case the chef had any questions about raising oysters.
But the chef was slammed, the waitress explained, and he wouldn't be able to take a break to meet them. Could they leave the oysters, maybe come back at two?
Farrington is new to the business of selling his farm-raised oysters, but those who have gone before him would tell him to get used to the hurry-up-and-wait. For the first several months, many oyster farmers have to drive their product to markets in Baltimore, Richmond and the District of Columbia — taking time that could have been spent on their farms. With no marketing firm, oyster farmers are often cold-calling restaurants and hoping for a sympathetic ear.
The good news for Farrington and all of the oyster farmers who follow him is that someone else got there first. Once considered an inconsistent product, entrepreneurs from the Rappahannock River to the Tangier Sound have proven that the farm-raised Chesapeake Bay oyster can compete with bivalves from Prince Edward Island and Long Island Sound.
"When we walked in, it was like, 'Chesapeake what? We can get those for 10 cents apiece.' There were a lot of roads that we went down that didn't turn out well," said Kevin McClarren, manager of the Choptank Oyster Company in Cambridge, MD. "It was a long tough kind of slog through the mud to get to the point where they kind of sold themselves."
Now, McClarren's Choptank Sweets are available at several restaurants from the Eastern Shore to Philadelphia. Johnny Shockley's Chesapeake Golds, farm-raised in Tar Bay not far from where the lifelong waterman once dredged for oysters, can be found throughout the District and have even earned a coveted spot on the Old Ebbitt Grill's menu near the White House. Cousins Travis and Ryan Croxton took their grandfather's unused oyster grounds in the Rappahannock River and turned them into a productive oyster farm as well as a marketing arm to sell and distribute other companies' oysters.
The Croxtons have reached some of the country's most celebrated chefs, including Tom Colicchio of television's "Top Chef" and Eric Ripert, a culinary star and chef at New York City's Le Bernardin. They've recently opened their own tasting room, Merroir, in Topping, VA.
"I think for awhile, the Chesapeake oysters fell into the second-tier category," said Spike Gjerde, the owner and executive chef at Woodberry Kitchen, a well-reviewed farm-to-table restaurant in Baltimore. "But with the growers we have now, the oysters are world-class. I can't understand why more restaurants don't serve them."
The bad news: While Farrington no longer has to convince chefs of the merits of a farm-raised Chesapeake oyster, he still has to persuade them to buy his oyster.
Woodberry Kitchen would be an easier sell than Thames Street. For one thing, the chefs there already serve Rappahannocks, Choptank Sweets and Chesapeake Golds. For another, it's not open for lunch. With the chef's undivided attention, Farrington pulled up his laptop and showed photos of his operation, and where he plants the oysters in Zuza's community. Zuza slid in with his pitch.
Matt Day, Woodberry's Chef de Cuisine, asked a lot of detailed questions: Are they diploids or triploids? (Diploids are the wild, reproductive oysters typically grown on the bottom; triploids have three chromosomes and are sterile, meaning they put all their energy into growth and none into reproduction. Triploids are typically grown in cages for the white-tablecloth market, while diploids are often shucked.)
"Triploids," Farrington said.
Woodberry serves about 1,200 oysters a week, rotating among the various types. But it didn't yet have an oyster from the Patuxent, and Day was eager to try it.
The verdict: "Really buttery, really creamy. A beautiful, beautiful, clean finish."
A good oyster like that, Day said, can change peoples' opinions of oysters.
"What people know as a Chesapeake Bay oyster is a Chincoteague oyster — a wild oyster, really salty, not a lot of character. Then they start to taste these really interesting farm-raised oysters. There are all these nuances of flavor that people have never experienced," Day said.
Day liked Zuza's conservation message almost as much as the oysters, and told Farrington he hoped they could do business.
The trio headed to Baltimore's gleaming Harbor East neighborhood to meet chef Joseph Pastore at Oceanaire. Where Woodberry is rustic, Oceanaire is sleek. Designed to look like an ocean liner, the chain restaurant has 12 locations nationally and flies fresh fish in daily. While Gjerde confesses to heartburn for having to stock a few non-local products like lemons, Oceanaire has no qualms about putting Ecuadoran Mahi-Mahi or Grilled Faroe Islands Scottish Salmon Dynamite on its menu.
But Oceanaire's previous chef, John Taylor, had a reputation for serving local seafood, and Pastore, who recently came to Baltimore from Orlando, was ready to hear the pitch. He wanted to know if Farrington salted the oysters.
"No," Farrington said, "But I think you'll be surprised how salty they are."
He grows the oysters 10 feet deep, and a strong current creates a lot of flow.
Pastore agreed to try it.
"Good cup, very clean...fantastic. There is a little bit of salinity."
Pastore told Farrington he'd put the oysters on the menu.
The trio swung back to Thames Street. The waitress said that the chef tasted the oysters, and he loved them, but he still didn't have time to talk. Can they come back another time? Vilnit reassured the troops not to give up; Chefs are very busy, and an invitation to return was better than a closed door.
The group then headed to the belly of the beast — Ryleigh's Oyster bar, Happy Hour, two days before the Ravens would win the Super Bowl. The bar, a huge football hangout in a huge football neighborhood, was already wall-to-wall purple people, and a local television station was setting up cameras to do a fan story.
But owner Brian McComas greeted Farrington warmly, and took his box of Calvert Crests back to his shucker.
"This is the best type of marketing. Live and in-person ready to go," McComas said.
Ryleigh's sells a lot of oysters — at least 130 different kinds in a year. It has put many farm-raised varieties on its menu. Shockley's Chesapeake Golds and McClarren's Choptank Sweets have joined oysters from Shooting Point, on Virginia's Eastern Shore, and Uncle Ernie's, which are grown near Crisfield.
McComas liked the oyster — "It reminds me of what they tasted like when I was a kid" — and he told Farrington that the restaurant is looking for "a solid Chesapeake Bay oyster to put on the menu."
Farrington replied: "Well, I've got oysters. And I'd love to have you sell them."
But price seemed like it could be an issue. Unlike Oceanaire and Woodberry, where a dinner for two is a special occasion that can cost about $100, Ryleigh's is much more of a stop-by-after-work place. Typically, oyster farmers will not sell their product for less than 50 cents, and wild oysters are occasionally available for even less than the 10 cents that McClarren had to compete against.
Farrington's instincts were correct. He and Ryleigh's manager could not agree on price. But Thames Street decided to sign on. Between the three Baltimore restaurants, Farrington is selling and delivering 800 oysters a week. In addition, he is selling 400 of his less expensive "Steamboats," which he grows on the bottom, to three restaurants in the District of Columbia.
Thanks to changes in Maryland's aquaculture laws, other oyster farmers are preparing to do business in Southern Maryland. A restaurant may not mind having two Maryland oysters on the menu, but it's not likely to want several from the same area at the same time. Farrington, though, is not worried.
"There a lot of restaurants that are doing raw oysters," he said. "They're kind of the 'it' food right now. I feel like we're just at the tip of the iceberg. I hope it lasts."
Poaching, serious oyster harvest violations increasing
VA cases involve taking oysters out of condemned waters, a threat to public health.
Virginia's growing success in cultivating oysters has led to an unfortunate consequence — a spike in poaching and other serious oyster violations.
Over the last two years, the Virginia Marine Police have issued 500 citations for violating oyster catch restrictions, a more than fourfold increase over 2011's numbers, according to Virginia Marine Resources Commission spokesman John Bull.
The police have noted that the violations are also becoming more serious.
At least five of the cases involved catching oysters in a condemned area. State officials condemn areas to shellfish harvesting when bacteria counts are too high and anyone eating those oysters could become seriously ill. There have also been multiple instances of watermen taking oysters from private grounds and sanctuaries.
Many of the violators are repeat offenders. During the first weekend in March, police filed 100 charges against just 10 Gloucester watermen for violations, including multiple charges for harvesting more oysters than the law allows.
The surge in oyster crimes has prompted the commission to re-examine when it will seek license suspensions. Currently, Bull said, the third violation in 12 months will trigger a hearing in front of the commission to consider a two-year suspension. The two-year suspension is the maximum penalty.
Now, Bull said, the commission wants to create a tiered system that ranks the severity of violations to trigger a suspension hearing earlier. Repeat violations of lessen violations could also trigger a hearing.
"These violations haven't been ranked. We're going to do that," Bull said. "This has been in the works since December."
After decades of doom and gloom when oysters frequently died from the parasitic diseases MSX and Dermo, the state's oyster industry has come back in a big way. In 2001, the harvest was just 23,000 bushels. In 2012, it was 250,000 bushels. The dockside value of the oyster harvest increased from $575,000 to more than $8.25 million, according to the commission. Helping the oysters rebound was a rotational harvest system, which opened areas to dredging on a staggered basis to let the oysters reach market size but be harvested before disease struck.
Maryland has also been grappling with oyster poaching. Its strategy, in addition to increased patrols, has been to work with the courts to stiffen penalties. Judges who hear cases of robberies and assaults might be willing to go easy on an oyster poacher. So, the state Department of Natural Resources and the Attorney General worked to create a natural resources docket. That way, one judge hears all of the fishing violation cases and becomes familiar with their severity. The docket is now in Anne Arundel County but may be expanded to other counties.
The department also changed the penalties so that a waterman could lose his license after just three violations within a two-year period. Prior to 2010, almost no waterman lost his license, no matter how many violations he had. But that year, three watermen had their licenses suspended for the rest of the season.
In October 2012, eight watermen were permanently prohibited from harvesting oysters in Maryland.
Oyster shell recycling expands into Dorchester Co. MD
The Oyster Recovery Partnership is continuing to do its part to help Maryland overcome its shell shortage.
The Annapolis-based partnership is already collecting shells from dozens of restaurants, caterers and wholesalers in Baltimore and the District of Columbia that serve oysters on the half-shell.
Now, the partnership has announced a plan to make shell recycling containers available at the Dorchester County Recycling Program, so residents of the waterfront county can easily get their shells to the right bins.
Since it began four years ago, the Oyster Recovery Partnership's Shell Recycling Alliance has recycled more than 1,200 tons of shell.
But the partnership says it's still just a drop in the bucket — providing only 15 percent of the state's annual needs. Each recycled shell can provide a home for 10 baby oysters, which grow on the bottom.
Here are the new collection sites in Dorchester County:
Beulah Landfill: 6815 East New Market Ellwood Road, Hurlock, MD 21643
Hours: 7 a.m.–3:30 p.m. Monday–Saturday
Secretary Transfer Station: 5915 Cambridge Road,
MD Route 14, Secretary, MD 21664
Hours: 8 a.m.– 4 p.m. Monday, Tuesday & Thursday
Golden Hill Transfer Station: 3270 Golden Hill Road, Church Creek, MD 21622
Hours: 8 a.m.– 4 p.m. Monday–Wednesday & Friday
University of Maryland Center Environmental Science Horn Point Lab: 2020 Horns Point Road, Cambridge, MD 21613
Hours: 9 a.m.–3 p.m. Monday–Friday