From shore to door: Oyster farmers turn to locals after export market tanks
The Little Shemogue Oyster Company went from sales of 20,000-plus oysters per week to less than 1,000
At this time of the year, Kevin Williams and his father Wayne would normally have eight employees helping them to process and ship thousands of oysters to the eastern United States.
Instead, Kevin says, he and his dad are keeping the Little Shemogue Oyster Company afloat by drumming up business locally. It's a market they had never explored before.
"Basically, sales went from what they were, which was really strong, to zero," said Wayne. "Quite a shock to the system."
Oysters started out as a hobby, but turned into a family business about five years ago. The Williams' have two water leases where oysters are grown, one in Cocagne, the other in Little Shemogue. The company also buys from other farmers and sorts and ships tens of thousands of oysters each week to Boston and New York City.
"My best market is the springtime, all winter you're paddling along waiting for the spring to hit and this year it didn't happen," said Wayne. "So that kind of hurts."
With help from emergency funds and wage subsidies offered by the Federal Government, and people in New Brunswick showing an interest in their oysters, Wayne thinks the company can hang on until next winter.
Part of the community
Between word of mouth and social media ads, Kevin has been delivering hundreds of oysters every week to new customers in Moncton, Shediac and Sackville.
"There's just something special about being part of the community," said Kevin, who hopes to keep his new customers when the export market recovers.
Kevin drops the oyster orders at front doors, rings the bell, then leaves.
He said it's also been helpful that a local restaurant offering weekly food boxes filled with items from different suppliers has often included the local oysters.
"It just means a little bit more to me than just shipping a pound of oysters off to somebody you've never met."
10 years of 'expansion mode'
According to Rachelle Richard-Collette, director of the New Brunswick Mollusk Association, the province normally exports 20 to 30 million oysters a year.
She said it's too soon to know how badly the pandemic will affect the industry, but producers won't have the luxury of waiting to find out before deciding whether to continue.
Oysters grow for four to five years before they're big enough to sell. Richard-Collette said producers have to invest in their oyster farms now or risk ruining their product for years to come.
"They cannot afford not to go to work."
Grown in bags in cold bay waters, oysters are flipped and sorted on a continuous basis to stay healthy and to continue to grow. That takes time and labour.
Richard-Collette said farmers returned to work about three weeks ago when the ice melted, and many need employees to keep up with the demands of their farms.
"This is risky for them in terms of the business," she said. "They're incurring expenses and they don't have the sales right now."
The oyster industry in southeastern New Brunswick was "booming" and has been in expansion mode for the last 10 years, according to Richard-Collette.
So while sales volumes will be lower than previous years, Richard-Collette said if restaurants continue to reopen, a busy fall could bring hope to the industry.
But with 90 per cent of the New Brunswick oysters sold outside the province, how hard the pandemic is hitting other places will determine how quickly the industry will recover.