In response, Orchard Point hustled to pivot. The company started taking text and email orders and set up customer pickup points on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. In early April, it launched “tide-to-table” cold shipping, which allows families sheltering in place in the Mid-Atlantic, New York and Philadelphia to receive oysters overnight via FedEx. By the third week of April, it had a new website with online ordering.
Oyster farmers throughout the region are hurrying to establish pickups and organize deliveries to get their oysters to new buyers — at home.
The pandemic’s shuttering of restaurants has upended the seafood industry, since about 70 percent of the seafood Americans buy is eaten outside the home, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Oyster farmers, in particular, are reporting catastrophic losses, since their product is seen more as a social happy hour treat than a staple food, and few home cooks are skilled at shucking.
The Chesapeake Bay’s oyster aquaculture industry, which has seen exponential growth in Maryland and Virginia over the past decade, may be hit particularly hard. Many farmers are still recovering from the 2018 losses, and April, May and June are important harvest months.
In addition to impacting the economy, farmers and environmental organizations are worried about what the disruption will mean for the health of the bay. Part of the driving force behind the industry’s growth has been the environmental benefits of oyster farms — such as restoring water quality, reducing nutrient loads and providing habitat to improve the ecosystem — and the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance is working to add 10 billion oysters to the bay by 2025.
To do that, farmers need to harvest and sell the thousands that are ready now. That means establishing new business models on the fly and convincing those who have suddenly taken up bread baking to also learn to shuck and make mignonettes.
Rappahannock Oyster Co. co-owner Travis Croxton saw the writing on the wall early on. Rappahannock harvests about 10 million oysters annually from its three farms in Virginia, but it also owns and operates restaurants in several states. Its Los Angeles restaurants closed first, and Croxton watched as other states began to issue orders. “It was like a snowball that turned into an avalanche,” he said.
Rappahannock transitioned most restaurants to takeout, and while that shift has been difficult, the farms presented an even greater challenge, especially after Croxton and his partner cut the operations team from 20 people to four. “It’s a living, breathing thing. The animals are growing,” he said. “It’s very hard for us to tend to the massive crop we have with limited resources.”
The company already had a system for online orders and nationwide delivery. Before the pandemic, it generated about 5 percent of sales, with 95 percent from food service. Now, nearly all their oysters need to go to online customers, and Croxton is packing orders himself. “At 3 o’clock, I talk to the UPS driver, and at 6 o’clock the FedEx driver, and that’s about it,” he said.
Generating sales is also about more than immediate cash flow. “Selling those market-size animals frees up the cages they’re in for the animals coming in behind them that need room to grow,” he said. “That whole process has been decimated.” There’s an oyster growth bottleneck, just when some farmers are seeding a new crop for harvest years later. It’s a labor-intensive process, and they can no longer afford labor.
At Rogue Oysters, co-owners Aaron Rowland and Taryn Brice-Rowland are also concerned about their next crop, starting with how they’ll be able to afford seed, which they estimate will cost about $6,500 for their small Lancaster, Va., farm.
The couple put their first oysters in the water in 2017, and the extreme weather in 2018 wiped out 80 percent of the crop, impacting more than two years of inventory. Like the farmers at Orchard Point, they were just getting back on track when the pandemic emerged. “It was a really good growing year, so we were getting ready to scale the farm back up,” Brice-Rowland said.
Before, they were primarily selling wholesale through another nearby farm, which stopped ordering in March. With an estimated 30,000 market-ready oysters on hand and no customers, they started selling to people at home. After appearing in a video series produced by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to highlight the impact of covid-19 on the aquaculture industry, they drummed up enough interest to set up a Richmond pickup point and have since added more.
Brice-Rowland, who works a 9-to-5 job while Aaron runs the day-to-day farm operations, spent her after-work hours setting up online ordering, and she expects to have infrastructure in place to start shipping soon.
Some oyster farmers are using established channels, such as UPS, while others are bootstrapping delivery. Chef Rob Rubba placed an oyster order with Sapidus Farms farmer Mike Manyak and found out that the contactless house drop promised was just “him in his truck.”
Rubba was in the process of opening the anticipated restaurant Oyster Oyster in the District when restaurants were ordered closed. Now, he’s serving oysters to his family. “My 3-year-old loves them,” he said. “She crushed half a dozen on her own.”
Given his profession and experience, Rubba is the ideal customer, but he’s confident that home cooks can handle learning to shuck. “The best part about what we’re going through right now compared to past historical events is that YouTube exists,” he said. Many oyster farmers and sellers are also demonstrating shucking on Instagram. Budden posted a five-minute tutorial to Orchard Point’s Instagram at the end of March. Dylan’s Oyster Cellar in Baltimore, which is selling oysters from Johnson Bay Oyster Co. for pickup, hosted “Shuck School” on April 10.
Rubba said a good knife and a good towel are key. And while one might not develop the speed and consistency of a pro, a slow process is fine. For condiments, a mignonette requires little more than pantry staples: vinegar, onion, salt and pepper.
While oysters are often eaten raw, they’re also delicious cooked. Rubba recommends broiling them with butter infused with garlic and chile flakes and finishing them with lemon and vinegar. Add bread, and it’s a meal.
If taking them out of the shell to fry or make a stew is appealing, you can avoid an oyster knife altogether. Just layer the oysters in a steamer basket and place the basket over boiling water once there is a steady steam. “They’ll pop open enough that you can loosen it up with a butter knife and scoop them out,” he said.
Where to get oysters
Held is senior policy reporter at Civil Eats and the host and producer of the Farm Report on Heritage Radio Network.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the location of Rappahannock Oysters’ three farms. Only one is on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. This version has been corrected.
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