If it weren't for the oysters, they probably wouldn't have gotten together.
David Chamberlain was a retired shop teacher from New York who spent years living on and tinkering with a sailboat in the Hudson River. One day, he saw mussels growing under his dock and decided he might like to grow shellfish, too. New York wasn't keen on the idea, but when he called Virginia, Chamberlain recalled, "they said, 'come on down.'" He soon settled in Greenbackville, a town whose name was synonymous with oyster-industry fortunes from the days when the railroad hauled Chincoteague oysters to Baltimore and Philadelphia.
Luke Breza was a brash bond trader who made his money in the financial districts of Paris, New York and London. But with two young children, a passion for sailing and enough money to retire early from full-time work, the Hagerstown native decided to say goodbye to all that. He settled in Easton, enjoying small-town life, and decided to follow his passion and invest in environmentally friendly businesses that also had a potential to make money.
The story might have ended there, except Chamberlain left Greenbackville for the Maryland side of the Coastal Bays. After many years of trial and error with different locations, he began growing oysters in Scotts Landing, in the shadow of Snow Hill, on 7 acres of water column leased from the state. It was there that Breza discovered him in 2004.
"Luke went to the aquaculture office. He got a list of every oyster farm in Maryland and visited them. There weren't that many," Chamberlain said. "And then Luke came back over, and he never left."
Breza's infusion of capital, sweat equity and business acumen turned what was a side business for Chamberlain into a full-time, year-round oyster farm. They called the company Great Eastern Shellfish Co., and began selling the oysters to nearby restaurants as Snow Hills, in keeping with the tradition of naming oysters after the place where they're grown. The chefs raved about the oysters, which retain that famous salty flavor of Chincoteague Bay as well as a special mineral taste because they're growing in Box Iron Creek. In spring 2008, Breza took the oysters to a tasting contest in Providence, RI. When they finished runner-up, the Maryland Department of Agriculture issued a press release.
The firm's fame expanded when Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley made it the first stop on a tour of Worcester County in 2008. After visiting, O'Malley learned that Virginia had a thriving aquaculture industry, while Maryland had almost none. That visit solidified the path to the most significant change in the aquaculture law in 100 years.
Although it still isn't easy to obtain permits, future growers won't have to endure Chamberlain's five-year odyssey.
Like Marinetics, Great Eastern grows its oysters in floats. Chamberlain sleeps in a small shack on the property to tend the crop. Breza stays over sometimes, too. Chamberlain has built a hatchery, but it's not yet operational.
Their first year, they produced 30,000 oysters. By 2007, they were up to 80,000. In September 2008, they were on track for 200,000 when a Dermo epidemic wiped out nearly their entire crop.
"It almost put us out of business," Breza recalled. "We hibernated as much as we could. We took no salaries. Everything we sold went into our rent. I even had to lend the farm some money."
But Great Eastern bounced back. Chamberlain got a Department of Agriculture grant to build a better float with the goal of less fouling, and the Dermo problem has subsided.
"Sometimes it seems like we have a difference of opinion, but it all works out," Chamberlain said. "We're both workaholics, and we're too dumb to get out."
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.