BAR HARBOR — When the pandemic hit last spring, oyster farmers’ concerns started growing faster than their bivalves.
“It was a pretty difficult season,” said Afton Hupper, an outreach and development specialist with the Maine Aquaculture Association.
Oysters are largely eaten at restaurants and shucking them at home can be intimidating for customers. Growers rely heavily on the half-shell market. When restaurants closed or moved to takeout at the onset of the pandemic, a lot of farmers started to scramble.
Many moved into direct-to-consumer sales to fill the gap and now, a year later, oyster growers are seeing a surge in demand.
“I was worried that there wasn’t going to be any wholesale market here last year,” said Joanna Fogg, the owner of Bar Harbor Oyster Co. Since she started selling her oysters in 2017, Fogg has been able to sell out every year. Last year was tough at the start, but she was able to make it through OK, with the pandemic more postponing her season than scrapping it entirely.
“For us, things didn’t slow down as much as they did just delay,” Fogg said.
Business picked up in the summer and she started branching out more into direct-to-consumer sales. People started reexamining where they got their food from, and bought local to support the island’s businesses, which was “uplifting” for the oyster company. Having so many people staying longer on the island from places such as Boston and New York City, where oysters enjoy a higher status than in Maine, probably helped too, said Fogg.
She started selling shucking knives, gave FaceTime shucking tutorials, and set up shop at private events, the last of which continued to expand through the pandemic.
Now she’s getting inquiries about shipping her oysters – called Bar Harbor Blondes.
“I have people who ask if I want to ship and I just don’t have to,” Fogg said. “I can’t keep up with local supply on the island and if I don’t have to put my stuff in Styrofoam and burn fuel to get it anywhere, I’m not going to.”
A little farther out to sea, the direct consumer model didn’t work as well, said Jason Joyce, the owner of Burnt Coat Oysters on Swan’s Island.
“We lost sales last year because things weren’t open,” he said. “Having the bars closed is what really hurt everybody.”
For a small farm, it’s difficult to ship oysters to customers off-island. Selling them at weekend pop-up food markets, like some of their mainland counterparts, was also a hassle for islanders, so Joyce funnels everything into the wholesale market.
One of the big issues with having an off-year saleswise is that it is hard for farmers to just sit on their product for a year while they wait for the market to recover. Customers prefer oysters at a certain size, often around the 3-year-old mark.
“If they grow too big, it’s hard to sell them,” Hupper said.
Demand is back up now that restrictions have loosened and restaurants are open at full capacity, which makes Joyce optimistic for this season.
“It seems like there’s a big surge in demand,” Joyce said. “Everybody seems to be wanting them right now.”
Maine’s oysters don’t enjoy top billing in the minds of tourists hungry for lobster rolls, but they are experiencing a resurgence, with farmers and organizations like the Maine Aquaculture Association working to make Maine oysters a thing.
“We’ve had a lot of new restaurants approach us because more people want to eat oysters – are realizing that Maine has some of the best oysters on the planet,” Fogg said.
IronBound Restaurant and Inn in Hancock has been selling oysters from Fogg and owner Leslie Harlow’s son Graham Platner for three years. This summer, Harlow opened a raw bar on the weekends.
Platner, who runs Waukeag Neck Oyster, mans the bar on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
“(People) love to be able to have the opportunity to meet the oyster farmer,” Harlow said. “It’s a really nice way to educate our customers about the resurgence of the Maine oyster.”
To help put oysters on the map, the Maine Sea Grant and Maine Aquaculture Association created the Maine Oyster Trail – a new program and website partially born out of the pandemic that helps connect visitors with the state’s different growers, raw bars and oyster farm tour options.
The trail and its website launched earlier this month and is modeled after the Maine Beer Trail. Visitors can search for farms up and down the coast, see which offer tours and direct order from them. The new website has a trip planner as well, making it simple for people to build an itinerary.
“What we are really trying to do is make it easy and accessible,” Hupper said. “We think the model is going to be a really big success.”
Anne Langston Noll, the owner of Pemetic Sea Farms, an oyster farm based in Ellsworth, already had a tour booked within a few days of the website launch.
While she’s happy to show visitors the business, Noll also wants to make sure that local people can get local seafood.
Noll started growing oysters a few years ago and last year was the first year that she had product to sell. She was planning to go to restaurants and distributors, but the pandemic tossed her business plan out the window.
“We had to adapt to the fact that not all restaurants were open, catering businesses weren’t running,” Noll said. “There was a lot of change… We had to figure out straight-to-consumer right off the bat.”
Noll ended up not selling to distributors at all last year and instead operated a 50/50 split between direct sales and restaurants. Those percentages will probably shift in the future, but she wanted always to keep direct sales so that local seafood can remain attainable.
Direct sales do seem here to stay, several farmers said, and the demand has grown since before the pandemic – so much so that some are just trying to keep up.
“They’re selling everything they grow,” Hupper said of oyster farmers. “It’s a good problem to have.”