Beginning in June, the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium partnered with the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and Auburn University to offer the fourth class of Oyster Farming Fundamentals – and the first based in Mississippi! Over 20 Mississippi coastal residents enrolled in May, and they have spent three of their summer’s Saturdays putting in the hard work to learn about off-bottom oyster farming (with two more to go).
This class is not your typical slideshow and textbook class; there are no exams and no grades.
Instead, this class focuses on hands-on, the practical training, skills and knowledge needed to successfully permit and operate an off-bottom oyster farm. The course is broken down into four basic “chapters” what you need to know 1) before you start, 2) to start an oyster farm, 3) to operate an oyster farm and 4) to make the most of the oyster farm.
The first class included the basics of oyster biology (with a visit to a local oyster hatchery), an explanation of what off-bottom oyster farming is and why it’s an opportunity now in the Gulf of Mexico, and an introduction to business planning.
The second class covered the information that participants will need to start an oyster farm, including site selection, gear options and the basics of permitting.
The third class was spent in the waters off Deer Island in the state’s training area, where participants learned by doing. They helped put gear in the water and learned about grading, splitting and controlling the overgrowth on oysters and gear (called bio-fouling) through regular air-drying.
The fourth class will continue the basics of operating an oyster farm, including harvest requirements, protecting public health, storm preparation and mitigating hazards, and inventory management.
The fifth class will wrap up the “classroom” portion of the course, giving participants some tools to make the most of an oyster farm. Topics will include marketing and branding, distribution, best management practices and a review of business plans.
The class, however, won’t end there. To give participants the best opportunity to see what’s involved with oyster farming, participants will be given 10,000 oyster seed (juvenile oysters about the size of a shirt button) to raise within a dedicated training area within the Deer Island Oyster Park (much like a business park for oyster farmers).
Each farmer will be loaned a 100 yard “run” of oyster-farming gear to raise those seed through next spring. While they will continue to get advice and input, each farmer will have the opportunity to make their own decisions about how to raise those oysters – and to learn from that experience.
As the oysters grow, the participants will be getting lots of real-world experience, making decisions (both about how to care for their seed and if they want to forge ahead as commercial oyster farmers) and getting a sense of the work involved. Ultimately, the course is intended to allow each of these participants to make a well-informed decision about whether oyster farming is for him or her.
With oyster farms established and growing in Alabama, Louisiana and Florida, it’s exciting to see coastal residents of Mississippi in the water, working with oysters and gear. By this time next year, hopefully at least some of these participants will be commercial oyster farmers, bringing some of Mississippi’s best oysters to market.