At the end of January, over 50 current and potential oyster farmers gathered for a meeting at Auburn University, along with another 50 or so chefs, wholesalers, gear suppliers, researchers and Sea Grant Extension agents. This meeting, the Oyster South Symposium, marked a step forward for the development of off-bottom oyster farming across the coastal Southern United States, from North Carolina around to Texas.
Locally, the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium has worked with a number of institutions, including Alabama Cooperative Extension System and Auburn University, to find cost-effective means of growing oysters off-bottom (in some type of basket or bag suspended or floating off the sea bottom), identify markets and assure product safety. By working with coastal residents in Alabama, this has led to over a dozen commercial oyster farms getting started in Alabama, along with a number of related businesses, producing world-class oysters that are now showing up on raw bars across the country.
But what’s happening in Alabama is also happening in other Southern states, like North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana (with Georgia and Mississippi looking at starting similar efforts). The Oyster South Symposium was a chance for these growers to come together and learn about different culture methods, the importance of product safety, how to prepare for and recover from disasters, and market opportunities – all while swapping stories and meeting gear suppliers and chefs. Interestingly, there was a clear sense at this meeting that they are in this together; rather than seeing each other as direct competitors, it was clear that many felt that they needed to work together to solve problems and build markets.
Looking forward, there is a tremendous opportunity for off-bottom oyster farming to become an important part of rural coastal communities along the coast of the U.S. South, generating jobs in rural coastal communities while producing amazing food in a sustainable, environmentally friendly manner.