Life On The Half Shell

Ancient relics prove man has called Cedar Key home for over 12,000 years. Arrow heads and fishing spears abound, along with ornate quahog clam shell necklaces once used for trade and money. Today, it isn’t the clam’s shell that is sought for its value—it’s what’s inside that pays off.

Traveling west on State Highway 24 is like turning the weathered pages of a Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings novel. As you near the coast, skipping along the edges of the Waccasassa Bay Preserve and the Cedar Key Scrub Reserve, Old Florida comes alive, seemingly frozen in time, looking much the same as it did in Rawlings’ day.

Weathered barn-board houses with rockers sit idly on sagging front porches, and clean white churches sit neatly tucked back into stands of pine that stretch for mile upon mile.

But the epilogue of your journey is the highlight of this story—Cedar Key.

As you break out of the forest, the blue Gulf, framed by an even bluer sky, spreads out like eternity before you. Time seems to come to a standstill as you drive down a main street that looks pretty much the same as it did 50 years ago. It seems as if the town itself accepts any semblance of change begrudgingly, and then only on its own terms. This little seaside village of habit is more than comfortable with life just the way it is, because why mess with paradise?

Almost as old as the town itself are the family names that call this small set of coastal keys home. Many of the town’s 700 or so inhabitants are fourth- and fifth-generation “survivors” that have weathered many a storm and are proud to claim that saltwater courses through their veins.

Gulf Bounty

Cedar Key life truly is the “salt life,” as most of the local jobs available over the years have revolved around the life-giving crisp, blue Gulf waters. Charter boats abound, and until the state banned the oyster beds in 1990 and gill-net fishing in 1994, Cedar Key was world famous for its varied menu of oysters and fresh-caught seafood that was living in the warm waters one minute and on your plate the next.

But even though outward change may not come easy, adaptation does. The lives of those who depend on the sea require it, and these Cedar Key fishermen were born with the grit to weather more than just Gulf squalls and hurricanes.

When they lost their livelihood of oyster farming and fishing, they didn’t give up and dry up like wrack on the white sand beaches. They did what their fathers and their fathers’ fathers before them had done; they set their jaws and adapted to the change around them.

All they needed was to be pointed in the right direction, and their compass came in the form of a University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) extension agent named Leslie Sturmer.

Sturmer, who has a master’s degree in marine aquaculture, taught the former commercial fisherman and crabbers how to farm the Gulf. She introduced them to their future—the hard-
shelled clam.

The one-time fishermen were eager to learn, and instead of basking in the glory of days gone by when Cedar Key was called the Seafood Capital of the World, in a mere five years, they simply turned Cedar Key into the Clam Capital of the United States.

Soon, this little Gulf hamlet was producing more farm-grown clams than any other coastal town in the nation. At last count in 2007, Cedar Key farmers were marketing more than 132 million clams annually to both national and international clients.

Farming The Sea

“There are approximately 130 certified clam farmers in the Cedar Key area,” says Sturmer, “and 18 wholesalers. Wholesalers farm their own clams but also buy them from independent local farmers. All clam farmers are subject to extensive governmental regulatory control and must meet strict guidelines to farm and sell clams. The way the program is set up is that the state of Florida leases two-acre submerged plots in designated clamming areas to certified growers. The growers are then responsible for their own harvest, under close state supervision.”

Wholesaler Chris Topping, chief operation officer and president of Clamtastic Seafood Inc., began his life as a clam farmer as soon as he turned 18 and was eligible to purchase his first lease.

“Clamming is a great business,” says Topping. “But it is a business that is constantly changing, and it requires the ability to look to the future and make the necessary changes if you are going 
to succeed.”

Topping’s ability to adapt is evident; his business is thriving, producing over 40 million clams annually. He not only farms clams but buys regularly from local independent farmers as needed to meet market demand.

“I came here in 1992, but my wife, Diana’s, family has lived here for eight generations,” he says. “I was interested in marine biology and aquaculture, and when I graduated from high school, the clam business was just beginning to take off, and we got into it early. I was an independent farmer until the terrorist attack in 2001. After the attack, the clam business went to nothing, just like the rest of the economy. We saw then that the only way we would survive would be to wholesale our own clams; we couldn’t depend on wholesalers up north to move our clams, we had to do it ourselves—so we started Clamtastic. We now have 25 employees and farm approximately 30 acres of leased seabed.”

Both Topping and Sturmer note that the clam-farming business is expanding to other coastal states such as the Carolinas and Virginia. This expansion has flooded the market with fresh clams and has driven prices down considerably in the last few years.

Still adapting to this type of change, Topping says his company is looking to the future by beginning to move toward increased production of frozen clams, which has more of a market demand than fresh clams now, 
and for the 
foreseeable future.

Mike Smith, operations manager of Cedar Key Aquaculture Farms, another local wholesaler, echoes many of Toppings sentiments. His company employs 10 local workers and farms 24 acres of seabed.

“I’ve lived here 30 years, and my wife, Lisa’s, family has been here for five generations,” Smith says. “Her family all made their living off the water their entire lives, and we’ve been clam farming for 18 years now. We sell both fresh and frozen clams, but the frozen market is definitely the best market right now. There are at least a dozen fresh clam wholesalers right here in Cedar Key and only about three that are in the business of marketing frozen clams in the entire state.”

Frozen clams have a much longer shelf life than fresh clams and are used by major seafood restaurant chains and many fine chefs at high-end restaurants. Both Topping and Smith say the reason more wholesale distributors haven’t entered this area of clam marketing is the fact that foreign countries such as China and Vietnam are able to supply American demand at a very low price. This makes it hard for American clam wholesalers to garner enough profit to make their businesses viable.

“Many American restaurant chains buy foreign product because it’s cheap,” Smith says. “Companies such as Darden, which owns Red Lobster, buy from overseas, and that hurts famers here at home. It makes it very hard for us to compete in the frozen market.”

Clam Life

Sturmer says the methods approved for clam farming require strict adherence to state laws. Leases are visited by state inspectors on a regular basis, and officials make sure farmers stay within the perimeter of their leases. The entire process of producing clams ready to be processed and shipped takes up to two years for each harvest.

It all begins inside local hatcheries where they produce what are called “seed” clams. Seed is simply an industry name for newborn clams.

The production of seed begins with a select brood stock of quality, mature clams that are kept in an enclosed tank filled with fresh, filtered seawater. The water is constantly pumped through the tank, and the temperature is maintained at 68 degrees Fahrenheit. This process takes place year-round, because according to Sturmer, Florida has an ideal climate and natural environment for raising clams, so clam beds in the warm Gulf waters can be “planted” or stocked practically any time of 
the year.

In order to induce the brood stock to spawn, their food levels of phytoplankton are increased along with the water temperature and the clams are placed on spawning tables. A single female clam can produce millions of eggs, and as these eggs are fertilized, the seed clams begin to grow, eating special phytoplankton designed to optimize their health and growth.

In approximately six weeks, the newborn clams are transferred to special tanks where they become acclimated to unfiltered seawater and the natural phytoplankton from the Gulf waters. In approximately three more months, they are ready to be placed in seed bags and planted on leased acreage in the Gulf. Several thousand baby clams will be stored in each seed bag.

After another three months of growth, they are ready for the final planting. Between 1,000 and 1,500 clams, which are each now almost the size of a penny, are scattered in a mesh bag and staked to the bottom of the farmer’s leased land in the Gulf. They will soon be covered with silt, and there they will grow for the next 18 months until they are ready for harvest.

During harvest, workers enter the water and pull the mesh bags up through the silt and bring the clams into the distribution facility for processing. It has taken two years for the process to be fully completed. Clam farmers, whether independent or wholesale distributors, all use the same methods of farming, ones that are approved and closely monitored by the state.

Once the clams are processed, if they are to be delivered fresh, they will be shipped out immediately. If they are to be frozen, 
they will be cleaned, processed and immediately frozen to maintain freshness.

What Does The Future Hold?

As more states along the Eastern seaboard make inroads into clam farming and the market for fresh clams remains saturated, it is making the life of the Cedar Key clam farmer increasingly difficult. The small, independent farmers have suffered the most and narrowly dodged a bullet as the Florida Department of Agriculture considered expanding the existing lease options earlier this year.

If the expansion had been initiated as planned, it would have profited many of the large wholesale distributors but might have spelled doom for many independents. It would have opened the door for even more clams to be produced and driven market prices down even further.

“That option has been taken off the table,” says Sturmer. “The issue proved to be too controversial, and the Department of Agriculture decided not to move forward in that manner. Farmers couldn’t understand why the state wanted to allow more clams into a market that had some of the lowest dockside or farm-gate prices in the history of the industry. Considering that and the fact we are still mired in this recession and the product we are selling is considered a luxury seafood 
item, it made it hard to justify 
such an action.”

But Sturmer still keeps looking for ways to improve the lives of Cedar Key clam farmers, and she has been experimenting with the introduction of a new clam to the area.

“We have conducted a lot of research on a native Florida clam called the Sunray Venus clam that we hope will help increase sales for area farmers,” she says. “We feel this clam will fill a niche in the industry that isn’t as saturated as the regular hard-shell clam market is at this time. The Sunray Venus clam is fast-growing and has a decidedly different taste, texture and look than the standard hard-shell clam; it would be considered a more high-end product.”

Topping took notice of the Sunray Venus clam at about the same time IFAS began its research and has begun to implement brood stock and hatchery techniques to produce seed for local and national clam farmers.

Sturmer is also spearheading the reintroduction of oyster farming to the area.

“We have started workshops with local clam farmers to introduce them to some of the new technology and techniques for oyster farming that are being successfully utilized in other areas today,” she says. “We think this could be a great opportunity to expand into a large market.”

One local wholesaler who agrees with Sturmer when it comes to farming oysters is Jon Gill, co-owner of Southern Cross Sea Farms. Southern Cross has 10 employees and is “vertically integrated,” which means they produce clams from hatchery through processing and shipping. Even though Southern Cross is a highly successful business, farming its own clams and also buying from as many as 10 local farmers on a regular basis, Gill believes the oyster market will be a profitable one—if they can get it going.

“Southern Cross, in conjunction with Leslie Sturmer and the University of Florida, is in the process of trying to determine if we can develop a successful floating system for growing oysters in the Cedar Key area,” says Gill. “Once we get any problems worked out with state regulators, I would love to go into the oyster business. The oyster market is a much, much larger market than the clam market. Practically everybody in the world eats oysters and 
not everyone likes clams, so, yes, I think oysters are a great future market product for Southern Cross.”

Beneath The Surface

Although the town of Cedar Key may look pretty much the same on the outside, just offshore, buried under silt that once cut the keels of Spanish Galleons questing for gold, lies a new treasure: the product of a townspeople who just refuse to give up. The clam farmers, crabbers, fishermen and future oyster farmers, like the generations who came before them, are ready for whatever the future might hold.

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