FARM BILL SPOTLIGHT: SWEET AMALIA OYSTER FARM

Sweet Amalia Oyster Farm owner and operator Lisa Calvo used Farm Bill funding—Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grants—to conduct on-farm research to improve farm efficiencies and sustainable production practices to support her business and the growing shellfish industry.

This is the fourth article in a series of interviews exploring how policies in the Farm Bill influence people, programs, and food systems throughout the region.

Tell us a little about yourself. Who are you, what do you do, and how did you end up doing it?

My name is Lisa Calvo and I own and operate Sweet Amalia Oyster Farm, a small oyster farm located in New Jersey’s lower Delaware Bay. We produce high quality oysters that we sell directly to oyster bars and other fine restaurants in the Philadelphia area. Typically, we focus on sales to restaurants that appreciate and feature local, sustainably produced foods.

My farm encompasses a two-acre area located 400 feet offshore in the intertidal zone. Twice each day at low tide, the farm emerges as the tide water ebbs. Low-lying rebar racks hold the oysters that are neatly contained in mesh grow-out bags. The bags are initially stocked with thousands of tiny oysters that are not much larger than grains of sand. The seed oysters are purchased from area hatcheries. During the course of a 2-year grow out cycle, the oysters stocked in each bag will be thinned and transferred to larger mesh bags, finally ending at about 200 oysters per bag. We harvest our oysters when they are just approaching a three-inch shell height. Oyster farming requires a great deal of labor. In addition to splitting and sorting for size, the oysters are regularly cleaned by pressure washing them with ambient seawater. Washing removes silt and fouling organisms that, if left unchecked, can smother the crop. We handle most of our packing work on the farm and, given our relatively small scale, we are able to hand sort and select our oysters for market. So, in addition to size, we consider shell formation, shape and weight when we pick our market product. Our oysters are harvested for market one to two days per week, April through early January. They often get to restaurants on the same day as harvest.

Oyster farming has been a second job for me and a natural extension from nearly three decades working as a marine scientist specializing in shellfish research. My first job in marine sciences was at the Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory at Rutgers University, located on the Maurice River, the hub of a historic and significant oyster fishery. The Laboratory has been conducting research in support of local fisheries, especially the oyster fishery for more than a century. It was a great place to literally get my feet wet in marine sciences and while there, I became captivated by all things related to oysters. I pursued a graduate degree at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and stayed on as a researcher in the shellfish pathology laboratory for 16 years. At both institutions, I was involved in selective breeding research to develop oysters that could resist the local diseases that decimated wild populations in the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays. The availability of disease resistant oyster stocks was the breakthrough that enabled the oyster aquaculture industry to develop and flourish along the east coast of the United States. Sweet Amalia Oyster Farm is now one of more than a thousand oyster farms in the region.

After my children were born, I wanted to be closer to my family so I returned to my New Jersey roots and refocused my career on outreach and extension working as an Aquaculture Program Coordinator at Rutgers University and New Jersey Sea Grant, an opportunity that has allowed me to work on community-based oyster restoration projects with school children, help new oyster farmers get started, and solve problems to help farmers improve production.

My husband and I dabbled in oyster farming when we were living in Virginia, but gave the farm to a friend when we relocated to New Jersey. It wasn’t until ten years later that Sweet Amalia Oyster Farm was reborn on the shores of the Delaware Bay. Initially, my husband was the primary farmer and I was a weekend warrior. I grew to really love the farm, and so when my husband pursued opportunities abroad, I took over Sweet Amalia Oyster Farm.

 

How do gender equity, racial equity and/or class show up in or impact your work?

Oyster farming really comes down to hard working people with passion and pride for what they are doing. You need to be willing to work when it is hot, when it is cold, and when the greenheads (horse flies) are biting! While women and minorities may be underrepresented on the bay and on the farm, I don’t think that gender or race disqualifies them from being successful in these fields. My oyster farm crew typically has more women than men and it is not necessarily my bias, but just a reflection of who is seeking the work. I think my oyster farm workers enjoy being outdoors, experiencing the surrounding natural beauty, and being physically active. Typically, the women that have worked with me have been outdoorsy, adventurous, athletic, and confident. They are strong and capable, and have demonstrated impeccable attention to detail. They also seem to appreciate the challenge and reward associated with nurturing high-quality product as well as the value of this very special food production system, which is not only sustainable but also serves to benefit ecosystem health as oyster farming improves water quality and provides habitat for a diverse suite of organisms.

The farm is named after my daughter, Amalia. This summer, she organized an internship at the farm where 13 interns—3 men and 10 women—from Washington University in Saint Louis came to work on the farm for 2 to 3 weeks. The interns came from different backgrounds, not just science but global health, art and business. I feel that the diversity in young people interested in this industry is key to its success. There are many issues involved with our industry—environmental, food safety, a changing climate, etc.—so we need a broad perspective to evolve our business. Working with these interns left me very hopeful about the future of the aquaculture industry.

 

What have been some of your greatest challenges and/or rewards in running an oyster farm?

Right now, the oyster farming community is facing both environmental and political challenges. Just like agriculture, weather conditions can have a major impact on our production. For instance, severe winters over the past few years have knocked back our production. We work in a system that is constantly shifting. Wave action caused by storms can shift sand and bury the racks, smothering the oysters; ice and extreme cold can cause oyster mortality; and droughts can intensify disease.

Another important challenge relates to policy. Aquaculture is a relatively new industry and we are operating in an environment with a regulatory framework that is evolving with the industry. There are competing interests from others who enjoy and use the Bay, including vacation home owners who recreate here as well as environmentalists who are concerned about human effects on wildlife. There is a need for smart planning for the industry to grow and this will require a balance of competing interests.

An important issue for me and for other oyster farmers in the lower Delaware Bay has to do with the red knot, a migratory shorebird that uses the Bay as a stopover site to refuel during its annual breeding journey that can stretch from South America to the Canadian Arctic. The birds feed on horseshoe crab eggs that are laid on Bayshore beaches. The recent listing of this bird as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act triggered actions against oyster farms because of concerns that the farms may impact the bird’s ability to feed during their two-week stopover. My farm—located a short distance north from the other farms on the Bay—is believed to be in an area where more of the birds aggregate to feed; as a consequence, the USFWS has dictated that I relocate or close the farm. It is not easy to find another site and the State is working to identify an area for me to move to. Studies have been underway to examine the impacts of the oyster farms on the migratory shorebirds, but even in the absence of scientific understanding, the USFWS can take a precautionary approach to protect the species. There is no opportunity for economic or ecological benefits of the farm to be considered and conservation organizations are pressing for the farm to close. It is extremely frustrating because I embrace strict conservation measures to minimize potential impacts. In my view, I believe the closure should be a last resort and be based on a demonstrated need. The impacts of oyster farming, at least at its present scale, are likely negligible compared to the main threat of the red knot, which has been identified as climate change. Operating a business with this uncertainty is definitely my biggest challenge at the moment.

Despite such challenges, oyster farming is extremely rewarding. I strive to produce a beautiful high-quality oyster and when I empty a grow-out bag that is full of perfect market oysters, there is definitely a feeling of pride and accomplishment that overcomes me. The oyster on the half shell encapsulates two years of careful husbandry, a lot of hard work, and problem solving. As a scientist, I guess I’m drawn to the problem-solving aspect of oyster farming. There are so many variables involved and just when you think you have it figured out, nature throws another curveball, presenting a new challenge. That certainly keeps things interesting. And then there is just the pure natural beauty that surrounds you every day you are on the farm. I love that connection with nature. While there are unbearable days with extreme heat, freezing cold and biting flies, more often, the bay is a great place to work. The sky, the water, the surrounding marshes provide a spectacular backdrop. It’s especially rewarding to be able to share the experience of oyster farming with others. People that visit are amazed by the farm and its surrounding environment. It’s really great when we have chefs and restaurant staff come to visit the farm. It gives them an opportunity to appreciate the Bayshore, the farm and the process—and it builds community. The personal connections that I have made through oyster farming are quite special.

 

This work is hard. What do you do to keep yourself going? How do you keep developing your skills?

Yes, our season typically runs from April to New Year’s Eve or until we get a solid freeze, so like other farming operations, this work requires strength and stamina. The farm is low technology—it is all hand labor. So everyone on my farm pitches in to do everything; we all work as a team. Right now my crew includes a school teacher and artist, a mother of a toddler, and college and high school students. We have a good time. On a typical day at the farm, we spend much of our time at the table sorting and sizing about 3000 oysters. As a multi-generation team, we have some pretty interesting conversations. [Image may contain: one or more people, shoes and outdoor]

To keep my business moving forward, I try to be flexible and anticipate changes coming ahead. We are working in a changing environment in a system that is shifting as well. So, for example, one year my seedstock supplier had a total loss so now I am careful to diversify my seedstock sources. There are always lessons to learn.

My work at the Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory keeps me in touch with the latest science but I also enjoy experimenting on my own to create efficiencies and make sure my product is the best it can be.

 

How has Sweet Amalia Oyster Farm interacted with Farm Bill programs and issues?

Our farm has received two Farmer Grants from Northeast SARE, a competitive grant program funded by USDA. For our first grant, we developed a low-impact amphibious vehicle. We use it to help harvest and transport our oysters, transport gear, serve as a mobile pumping station, and it also provides a work surface for sorting and grading oysters. The grant helped design and build a prototype that is scaled to our size operation. This unit has become a real “work-horse” on the farm. It is fabulous. We use it every day. It has greatly improved our farm operations; it is a great tool and well worth the $15,000 investment. A few other oyster farmers in our area have used the plans we developed to make their own amphibious vehicles too.

My current Northeast SARE Farmer Grant is looking at the best route to raise young oyster seedstock. We used to purchase seed the size of a dime but with increasing demands, hatcheries are shifting to much smaller seed to reduce handling time and free up space for producing additional seed batches. The small seed is grown in land-based nursery systems prior to field planting. This adds costs and not all farmers have land-based nurseries. I want to enable oyster farmers like me who don’t have access to land-based nursery sites to raise seedstock in an intertidal field nursery setting. So, I’m testing different methods for nursery of small seed in the field. I am comparing the different types of containers and stocking densities. I’m hoping the results will help us come up with good field nursery practices for the Delaware Bay so we can better meet the growing demand for seed. The project just started this year so I’m excited to see what we find.

I also have crop insurance through USDA but fortunately I haven’t had to place a claim.

 

What has your experience with SARE been like so far? What did you hope to accomplish through your projects?

The Northeast SARE grants have been integral to our operation. In my job at Haskins, I have applied for a lot of grants. I think that SARE is really valuable as it gives farmers the opportunity to develop new ideas that often translate into significant farm improvements. Northeast SARE has a straightforward program application and excellent support materials. The online submission was clear and worked well and program staff are very helpful.

 

What are your goals and needs for your farm looking toward the future?

Next year, I’d hope to double my production to meet the increasing demand for my product. I’d like to bring on additional workers and provide better salaries to my current employees. 

More broadly, I’m hoping that policymakers can develop a plan to grow shellfish aquaculture while balancing the needs of other Bay users. To that end, I think we need to better educate the public so they understand the practice and benefits of shellfish aquaculture. The oyster bar may be a perfect stage for connecting consumers with farmers and providing support for healthy bays and Bayshore economies.  

But, really, beautiful oysters are my goal. I want to produce the best oysters for my customers. It’s an exciting time to be an oyster farmer. There is a tremendous market demand and a lot of buzz about local food and sustainable seafood. It gives me hope.

 

Thank you, Lisa, for sharing your story!

Connect with Sweet Amalia Oyster Farm: www.facebook.com/SweetAmaliaOysterFarm/

Connect with Northeast SARE: www.northeastsare.org. Northeast SARE is currently accepting Farmer Grant applications for its 2019 cycle through November 27, 2018; learn more at www.northeastsare.org/FarmerGrant.


TAKE ACTION:

SARE is authorized as part of the Farm Bill, a multi-issue piece of legislation that gets re-authorized once every four years.  The 2014 Farm Bill expired on September 30th, and Congress has not yet passed a new 2018 bill or an extension of the old bill.

SARE’s funding will continue in the absence of a new bill, but other programs that support sustainable agriculture- including many conservation programs and the 10 “tiny but mighty” programs - are unable to issue new grants until a new Farm Bill is passed. And it’s always good for legislators to hear that programs like SARE matter to their constituents!

Action: Contact your members of Congress 

Script: Hi, I’m a constituent and a _________ (describe your food systems role).  I’m urging you to pass a new Farm Bill as soon as possible, one that supports robust research programs for farmers, and funds conservation, local foods, nutrition programs, and supports sustainable food systems. Thank you!