Saturday, December 10, 2016

We Keller Women

Somewhere along in the 1960's, my grandmother Anna Keller bought a shinny new white Chevy Impala with red leather interior.  She saw it on the car lot and bought it right then and there. 

The thing was, she had never driven a car.  It had just gotten to the point in her long independent feisty life that she wanted her own transport.  

She enlisted help from a neighbor to teach her the basics and a few days later showed up at our house that was 100 miles to the west.  This was not the first time Anna had surprised us with her strength as a single mom.  She had raised her 12 brothers and sisters and my dad with firm ear pulling and fine example.

Last year at the start of my own Oyster Aquaculture operation, husband Jack informed me his boat was NOT a working boat and would not be available to me for oystering nor would he be dedicating his time to serve as captain.

I scrolled through Craigslist and other boat classified ads each night until a 19foot Carolina Skiff caught my eye.  I shared the ad and photos with Jack and by 5pm we were heading to Homosassa to check her out. 

After meeting the family, grandkids and and touring their house with the 27 Christmas trees the wife had started to decorate for the holidays (it was August), we hooked up the skiff to our truck to take her for a test run.  On route to the landing a tremendous storm rushed in.  I'm talking the kind that blackens the sky and pours rain in buckets. Only the lightning made it possible to see our way.
With the test run called off and we left on faith she would perform well once home to Tallahassee. 

A few days later we launched her at St Marks and true to my Grandmothers example, I started her up and ran her down the channel.  Elated.  Free. Another independent Keller Woman in mode.

'Ginny', short for Crassostrea virginica the genus and species name for my oyster, has served me well for 16 months.  The two fishing chairs have been removed one by one and need for additional space grew.  Then went the rod holders.  She is dirty and often filled with barnacles and oyster spat.  She has a few scrapes and gouges where I've run into an oyster bar or anchor pole but she is my faithful ride through thick and thin.

My driving skills slowly improve.  I have a great GPS track guiding my way through the low water to my farm.  And I've only cut one Oyster line so far with my prop.  Granted, having Michael on board to help me 'park' at the right spot along the lines is still a perk I require.  I am gradually getting there.  

Just as Anna grew to enjoy her day trips through the mountains of Pennsylvania and the independence and feeling of freedom that came with being the captain of her own ship, so Ginny and I carry on.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Reid

I noticed him in the fall of 2015.  He came to an oyster meeting and stood out from all the rest because of his interest and aptitude.  He is tall, young, cute and ready to be an oyster farmer as his main occupation.  He started working for Sharon over on Alligator Harbor and I was sad -- because she nabbed him first.

Then he had a car accident. A very bad accident.  I followed his recovery on his fathers Facebook page.  It was heart breaking.  We all wondered if he'd ever walk again.  But this was Reid. And Reid masters everything and overcomes obstacles.  He has recovered and is walking and is so amazing.

I met him and his father at a Wakulla Environmental Institute event in the spring -- and asked if he would help me.  We exchanged numbers. 

Months later -- in July, Reid started working for me.  It was like a dream come true.  His youth and vitality. His knowledge of the water - his boat - and the oysters is such a huge help to me.  He heads out regularly, tends my oysters as if they were his own, and gets the work done. 

I watch him in his 15ft Carolina Skiff and it seems as if they are one. Quite a contrast to my fudging my way as a captain of my Ginny. He moves through the lines with perfect control.

Now, he has found and renovated a new boat - a 21 food Carolina Skiff and she is a beauty.  He put a cabin on it - that will be heated.  He built a culling table and has it rigged for oystering. 

And Reid got his own lease over on Skipper Bay. 

He'll still be working with me - but I am delighted he has his own opportunity to do this right from the start.  Our mistakes, issues, errors are all learning opportunities for all who care to learn.

Watch him grow!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Crabs

It is true.  I have crabs.  Blue Crabs. Stone Crabs. 

Some are as small as a lentil seed.  And the ones I found this weekend, hunkered down in my diploid oyster baskets were 5inches or more when they were flailing their claws at me. 

They managed to eat enough of my oysters to grow to that enormous size inside the basket.  They bullied out all the other crabs so they could have it all to themselves.  One crab per basket.

So what kind of life is that for a crab?  They have a bounty of food - until they consume it all.
They are protected from crab eating predators. They are alone.  No mating if they've pushed all the other crabs out.

And how do they survive the 24 hours the baskets are lifted to de-foul every week? 

As I opened each basket and dumped the contents into a bin, the crab would scurry to a corner, claws spread wide ready to attack.   I would flip it into the water after giving it a severe warning to stay out of my oysters and watch it scurry away -- free at last. 

Do the oysters feel safer now the monster crab is gone?  Did they even know it was there? 


I probably should have collected all of them and boiled them!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

OysterMom's Oyster Alley Opens



It is official.  OysterMom is a Certified Shellfish Processor and open to sell my - or anyone else's farmed oysters!    OPEN FOR BUSINESS! 

Thanks to Frank and Anne Ashcroft, I have a corner behind B&B Sporting Goods at 1139 E. Tennessee Street in downtown Tallahassee in a place we fondly refer to as Oyster Alley.

Cooler in place. Binder with page after page of records I must keep, WIFI, remote temperature gauges to monitor the cooler's every temperature shift, hand washing sinks, paper towels, toilet paper and hot water all in order as required by the State of FL Division of Aquaculture.

I'm out peddling my oysters and taking orders.

Come see me.  We'll shuck a few and tell tales of the sea.


Hermine

Florida has been in a hurricane dry spell since 2005.  And then, one August day, this tropical storm seemed to be headed our way.  Poorly organized, the meteorologists struggled to predict just where it might head.  The forecast map looked like a child's first drawing - squiggles on the page.

  

We opted to take a few precautions.  We dropped the oyster baskets to the lowest point on the riser poles, Stabilized the riser poles. And waited.  

As the Tropical storm got its name, Hermine, I was on the east coast of FL on Amelia Island for the FL Forestry Association annual meeting.  Weather there was blustery as another storm was headed along the east coast to NC.  I worried. I knew that wouldn't help, but still, I could not stop thinking about the farm and all the time and money invested and how this one storm could wipe the work clean.  

Thursday at 10:00 am, I and most of the other meeting attendees opted to check out of the wonderful Omni Resort and head home to make preparations.  

At home, Jack and I strapped the oyster baskets together into large bundles.  We moved all the patio furniture inside. All outdoor decor and plants inside.   Jim Cantore on the Weather channel was predicting heavy storm surges. Photos of Cedar Key's dock area ran constantly.  The big bend was being swamped. 

We lost power at our house about 10:00pm.  And at 1:30am I woke to a roaring wind.  

Hermine hit at St Marks National Wildlife Refuge just 10 miles east of Oyster Bay and the Aquaculture Use Zone.  She came in just before High Tide.  Winds of 65 mph.  Catagory 1 hurricane. 



Any mother would worry.  And being OysterMom, I was anxious to hear from my babies - and needed to know how they survived the storm.  

Friday was still windy - too windy to go out on the water and there was clean up in the yard and neighborhood.   Our next door neighbors had a huge loblolly pine snap off.  Power was out for 80% of Tallahassee.  Four ways stops at all street intersections.  Many had not prepared with food and water so there were mobs of folks at Publix - where shopping is a pleasure no matter what the weather.  

My Ginny Boat was dry docked at Rock Landing Marina, and the marina dock and gas pumps were gone.  Mad Anthony's and the boat storage buildings had both taken on a 3-4 foot storm surge. Debris was everywhere in the bay and parking lot. 

I contacted Tim Jordan and Walt Dickson and asked if I could head out with them Saturday morning to survey the farms.   We headed out in Matt Hodges oyster boat.  Gray skies, Choppy dark waters. 

And there, much to our delight, stood the farms.   My lease was unharmed.  A few had wobbly riser poles and only one had a line that had come loose and it and the baskets attached were tangled in it's neighbors poles.   We were all relieved.  Lucky. Happy. 

As a precaution, the Division of Aquaculture closed all the harvest areas in the Gulf on September 1. Slowly they began to open areas - first Apalachicola, then Alligator Harbor on September 8.  Water samples were collected from Oyster Bay on Sept 8, but the bay was not opened to harvest.   I went out to work the lease on Sept 10 and took a salinity reading.  10 days post hurricane, the salinity was at 15parts per thousand.   The weekend before the storm, salinity was 28 parts per thousand.  The oysters we harvested before the storm were some of the best we had ever tasted.  Those checked on Sept 10 lacked the salty brine flavor we love.   

So now -- 13 days post storm we wait for the go ahead to harvest and the return of the saltwater.  And I've orders to fill.  




Friday, August 12, 2016

The law and $10,000

Poaching of farmed raised oysters ruined an early 1900 attempt to farm oysters in the famed Apalachicola Bay.  Hunters of the wild oysters found it much easier and quicker to just take from the farm and sell the oysters as their own.  

Imagine where FL would sit now in the world oyster market has that not closed the farms.

Today, poaching continues and indeed, threatens the new farms just starting in water column oyster aquaculture.  It is deflating. Disappointing and financially devastating.  

The oysters float in baskets and feed in a vast bay.  - reaping all the benefits of the sea.   The farm infrastructure is sometimes visible from land but only accessible by boat.   It takes a lot of work and a huge commitment of time and money to work an oyster farm.  So poaching is a real threat.


 
We, the oyster farmers, watch out for each other.  We know each other's boats and each other.  If we see someone out on the Aquaculture Use Zone, we stop and talk.  Its like talking to your neighbor over the fence line, but we're in boats. 
 
Howdy. How are your oysters doing?  Did you hear about the poaching? 
Have you lost any product?  
 
When I was first burgled, I called the FL Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.  They told me to call the Wakulla County Sherriff's department.   The Sherriff's department told me to call Fish and Wildlife.  They had no idea what to do - how to handle this incident or how to prevent further thefts of oysters.
 
 
Now, we see both the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Rangers and the Sherriff's on the water patrolling the farms and watching for suspicious and illegal action.   And we, the farmers, have gathered together to offer a $10,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of anyone stealing oysters from the Oyster Farms. 
 
$10,000 is a lot of money.  We are serious and the poacher will be caught.   
 
 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Off to market in Apalachicola

New federal regulations deem it mandatory for the oysters to be delivered to the processor by 11:00am in the summer months and chilled to 55degrees within two hours of delivery.   Sounds simple, but let me tell you what this entails. 

a.  Prepare the oysters for a speedy pick up on the day of delivery by sorting out marketable size oysters and counting out 100 per basket.

b.  Depart my house at 5:45am to pick up Michael at 6:00am
c.  Drive to Rock Landing Marina where the staff have launched and fueled Ginny
d.  Motor to the lease - a 17 minute ride under the best conditions - 45 minutes in the worst conditions.

e.  Pull the oyster baskets and dump into mesh bags
f.   Pile them in the boat - carefully counting to insure the market order is met
g.  Reverse ride back to the Marina
h.  Load oysters into carts to get them to the parking lot.
i.   Load oysters into the truck.
j.   Drive 1 hour 15 minutes to Buddy Ward's seafood processing plant at 13 mile
k.  Unload oysters onto the loading dock.
l.   Receive check!  Payment for oysters.

m. Head to Apalachicola to spend check buying oysters and beer.


OMG.  I need a closer processor.