Farm to shuck to Food Pantry

Oysters from Katama Bay available at Island Food Pantry and other food distribution programs.

Ryan Smith, left, of Signature Oysters says oyster farmers, hurt by the pandemic, have gotten a boost from a program that buys mature oysters, has them processed, then donates them to the Food Pantry.

Thousands of mature oysters that stood in the way of aquaculture farmers growing oyster seed have been purchased by the Massachusetts Aquaculture Association, brought to a processing plant off-Island, and are now in freezers at Island Food Pantry ready for distribution to the growing number of people using the pantry’s services.

For an industry decimated by the ongoing pandemic, the oyster program is a win-win-win. 

Ryan Smith, who along with his wife, Julia Smith, own two farms operating as Signature Oysters, participated in the program. So did Roy Scheffer of Roysters, and Nick Turner of Honeysuckle Oysters — two other Katama Bay farmers.
“We sent off-Island almost 20,000 oysters that were paid for by Massachusetts Aquaculture Association, and they were shucked into pints and then frozen,” Smith told The Times. “We then went back and got them and shipped them back to the Island, where they were delivered to the Island Food Pantry.”

Those 20,000 oysters translate into 366 pints of shucked meat, Smith said. “It’s going a long way, and that’s a really good thing,” he said. “This is just awesome.”

Without the association stepping in to purchase the larger oysters, they likely would have been a total loss. The mature oysters aren’t what restaurants are looking for on their raw bar menus, and the farms had no room for seed.

Kayte Morris, who is the senior director of food equity programs for Island Grown Initiative (IGI) since the Food Pantry’s merger with IGI, said the oyster donation will go a long way in feeding Island families.

Not only are there frozen pints available at the Food Pantry, but some have been given to the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), to the MV Food Baskets program at Good Shepherd Parish, and both Slough Farm and IGI’s Food To Go programs are turning some of the meat into large batches of soups and stews that will also be distributed to Island families.

“I think it’s so wonderful. I’m consistently surprised and heartened by the generosity of not just the Island community but the broader New England community, and the ways these organizations have reached out to help individuals in need — especially during the pandemic,” Morris said. “Any time you can have a program that’s compensating the food producers for their work, that’s another push toward equity overall … It’s not just the individuals we’re serving the food to who are hurting, it’s the people who are making that food, and sometimes they’re the same people.”

Smith said Massachusetts Aquaculture Association had money donated to them because so many oyster farmers have suffered during the pandemic. The restaurants they sell to, which have either closed down or had their own businesses severely reduced, are simply not buying the number of oysters they ordinarily do. He said the farms have a lot of extra oysters they wouldn’t typically have, so selling those oysters made some room for future crops.

Scott Soares, the consulting coordinator for Massachusetts Aquaculture Association, a nonprofit that has represented the interests of shellfish farmers since 1986, applied for and received grants in excess of $100,000 — the bulk of it from the nonprofit Catch Together — to benefit oyster farmers up and down the coast of Massachusetts. The program to buy the oysters, have them processed at Tony’s Seafood in Rhode Island, and then returned to the communities they came from was based on a successful model used by the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension early on during the pandemic, Soares told The Times.

While the program just launched in early February, Soares said, overall 150,000 oysters have been purchased and distributed to food pantries.

Every grower in the state was invited to participate, and four from the Island took the association up on the offer. 

Oysters are the third most valuable seafood market in the state, behind only lobster and scallops, with a market of $50 million to $60 million. By April 2020, just a month into the pandemic, the market was down 80 percent.

“We’re hoping this project and the resiliency of the farmers themselves will allow the industry to continue to do well post-pandemic,” Soares said. “A lot of that depends not only on vaccines, but consumer willingness to go back to restaurants, and the restaurants to reopen.”

Scheffer, who once worked as an offshore fisherman, and now has been working his oyster farm for 25 years, said other than his first few years when he didn’t know what he was doing, this past year has been the toughest. The amount of oysters he was able to sell to the association, particularly large ones so he can make room for seedlings, was helpful.

“It’s good for the Food Pantry, and it’s good for us, too,” he told The Times. “It’s a win-win for everyone.”

Smith said this program is a bright spot in an otherwise tough year. “Overall, it’s been really challenging. Nothing you could really predict,” he said. “We all didn’t know how long it would last. In the beginning it was, this might be a few weeks, then it might be a month, and then after a month, oh my God, this might last a year … I’m just waiting for this to be over.”

He said it’s one of the worst years he’s had since the business started 15 years ago: “This year it just took a nosedive. I almost feel like I’m starting over. This feels like my first or second year in the business, the way things are going.”