Correction:

An earlier version of this feature misquoted Tim Sughrue, owner of Congressional Seafood Co. in Jessup, as saying that Wegmans sells his clams. He was referring to Giant. The clams sold by Wegmans do not come from Congressional Seafood. This version has been corrected.

Sourced: Clams, an open-and-shut case

You might call it a tale of two clams, soft-shell and hard-shell. Or of two states, Maryland and Virginia. Or of watermen and entrepreneurs figuring out how to make the best possible living in a shifting environment.

While seafood companies near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge are processing oysters from Texas and Louisiana and crabs from North Carolina, my thoughts turn to a plate of delicately fried steamer clams and a heaping bowl of spaghetti dotted with delicate steamed littlenecks. And, as luck would have it, the largest producer of farm-raised hard-shell littlenecks in the United States, Ballard Fish & Oyster Co., is harvesting those little jewels all along Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

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At my request, Tim Sughrue, owner of the Congressional Seafood distributing company in Jessup, arranged a clam tour late last month. We started in the upper Chesapeake Bay just off Kent Island, where independent clammer Bill Benton was harvesting wild soft-shell clams. (More on that later.)

From there, we drove 120 miles south and crossed over to Virginia’s Atlantic coast, where Mike McGee loaded us into his 17-foot Scout motorboat and showed us hundreds of beds of hatchery- and nursery-bred hard-shell clams being grown for Chincoteague Shellfish Farms. McGee owned that company until 2007, when he sold it to Ballard Fish & Oyster Co. At 65, with neither of his two children interested in the business, he figured it was the right time for him to sell. Now he runs the division for Ballard, with a proprietary eye.

McGee piloted his boat along Chincoteague Bay, the slice of water between the mainland and Assateague Island, navigating slim passageways often no deeper than 18 inches.

Along the way, he stopped so that his field manager, Eugene Fadeev, could wade between the beds and peel back the weighted mesh screens that keep predators such as cownose rays and crabs from getting to the crop, revealing clams that hadn’t quite yet grown to market size.

“Aquaculture is big business on the Eastern Shore,” yelled McGee as we zoomed back to shore, raising his raspy voice over the motor’s drone. “It’s like growing gold.”

Those nuggets, Sughrue pointed out, can make their way to a Washington dinner table in less than 24 hours.

“If Mike harvests clams in the morning and our trailer picks them up in the afternoon, they could be at DC Coast (in downtown Washington) or Giant by 8 a.m.,” Sughrue, a wholesale supplier, confirmed.

Aquaculture farms abound in Virginia because that state, unlike Maryland, made the business-friendly decision, beginning in the 1900s, to offer 10-year renewable leases of oyster bottom to private growers at a nominal rate.

Doing business since 1895, the Ballard Fish & Oyster Co. has acquired thousands of leased acres. The company began as an oyster harvesting concern, but when disease decimated the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population in the 1960s and ’70s, then-owner Chad Ballard saw the writing on the wall. In 1983, he opened a new division, Cherry­stone Aqua-Farms, focusing on hard-shell clams and the nascent aquaculture industry.

Today, his grandson, Chad Ballard III, 28, runs the company. (Chad Ballard II died in 2004.) This past year, between its two divisions — Chincoteague Shellfish and Cherrystone — Ballard sold 75 million clams.

Gold, indeed.

A week after going to Chincoteague, I drove farther south down the narrow 75-mile-long Eastern Shore peninsula to Willis Wharf on the Atlantic side and Cheriton and Cape Charles on the bay side. There, I toured Cherrystone Aqua-Farms’ pristine hatchery and nursery operations. Millions of clams are spawned indoors under optimal conditions, moved outside gradually and then planted in beds strategically placed to encourage efficient growth. Still, the clam survival rate is about 60 percent.

Ballard sells its farm-raised clams when they are small — and most in demand — and buys larger clams from local harvesters. To become littlenecks (the most popular size, measuring 7 / 8-inch thick across the hinge) takes two to three years from spawn to harvest. (Wild clams take three to five years to grow to that size, Ballard says.)

Here’s how the process works: Clams feed and grow by filtering algae from water. (An environmental and nutritional bonus: It’s a sustainable, high-protein food that cleans the water in which it lives.) The more food they eat, the bigger and faster they grow. In the hatchery, adult brood-stock clams spawn, creating larvae that become tiny clams in eight to 10 days. Those tiny clams go into so-called downwellers, where the water is sent downward through a holding tank. The clams remain for six to eight weeks under a constant flow of seawater pumped with massive amounts of super-rich food.

When the clams’ diameter reaches 1 millimeter, the nursery process begins. They spend six to eight weeks in outdoor tanks called upwellers, where nutrient-rich bay water is pumped upward and exits through the top. Once they reach 3 to 4 millimeters, the clams are moved to sand trays or nursery beds right off the shoreline for 10 weeks, until they reach 12 to 20 millimeters (1 / 3 to 1 / 2 inch). At last, the clams are ready to be planted in 50-by-12-foot beds holding 40,000 clams each. From there, Mother Nature takes over, for the most part.

“It’s all about tidal flow,” says McGee, who says clams grow three times as fast in the salty Atlantic waters of the Chincoteague watershed as they do in the bay.

“Because clams are sensitive to their environment, how long they take to grow is very site-specific,” says Tim Rapine, Ballard’s managing director and a marine biologist. “A change in the environment, a change in pH, a heavy rainfall in Pennsylvania can affect the water here. A drop of 10 parts per thousand, a salinity measurement, in a year, and that can have a drastic effect.”

Once the clams reach market size, harvesters use motorized or hand rakes to bring them up, fill spill-through baskets and rinse them. From there, they go to a 55-degree sorting room, where they are sorted by size, bagged and labeled, to be stored and shipped at 40 degrees.

Aquaculture of hard-shell clams is a year-round, high-energy, high-cost operation (Ballard employs 125 people in summer, 80 in winter) that yields high rewards dependably.

The story was a little different on Bill Benton’s boat in the Chester River, just off Kent Island in the Chesapeake Bay. Benton, 48, who has been a waterman since 1984, was harvesting soft-shell clams that day. Soft-shells are a different species from hard-shells. Also known as steamers, Ipswich or belly clams because of their bulbous stomach sacs, they are in low demand in this area; 90 percent of those harvested are shipped to Maine.

A separate motor on Benton’s boat sucks water from the surface, pumps it into the mud and brings up the clams on a conveyor attached to the side of the boat. Benton picks them off and fills seven or eight bushel baskets, which he sells to Harris Seafood Co. for $75 each. Harris, in turn, shucks them and sells them to distributors such as Sughrue.

Clams are persnickety, says Jason Ruth, an owner of Harris Seafood Co. “This is the southernmost range for clams along the East Coast. Any great variables in water quality and they don’t survive. Where Bill is, you can go every day for a week and not catch a clam and then go back one day and the rig is completely covered.”

I returned home from the Eastern Shore loaded with hard-shell clams and called Sughrue to order some shucked soft-shells, which I picked up at DC Coast a few days later. The public can ask retailers to special-order them.

Preparing the soft-shells was a no-brainer; they fairly beg to be deep-fried. I decided to give them a zeitgeist twist by soaking them in buttermilk with spicy radish and cabbage kimchi, the traditional Korean condiment and side dish that’s the current darling of the restaurant scene. A light coating of seasoned flour, and into the hot oil they went until golden brown. On the side: kimchi tartar sauce, of course. And lemon wedges.

The hard-shells were so fresh and sea-sweet that I didn’t want to mess with them too much. For one dish, I made a warm vinaigrette with shaved fennel, orange zest and crushed red pepper flakes, tossed in steamed clam meats and piled the salad on grilled country bread.

For a clam sauce with pasta, I steamed the clams in a wine broth with garlic and herbs, then combined the broth with the clam meats, corn and a vibrant green scallion, parsley and cilantro pesto.

To be on the safe side, I strained the broth first to make sure there was no sand left in it from the clams.

Chad Ballard claims his clams are pretty clean. Still, they are clams, and as folks like to say in his business, “Grit happens.”

Do you have clam questions? Hagedorn will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.

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