Peter Rand, owner of Dingley Cove Oysters, examines a cage of his oysters in Dingley Cove, just north of Cundy’s Harbor, on June 5. (JOHN GORMLEY PHOTO)
A great oyster is like a fine wine. It is a creation of the place where it was cultivated.
With this in mind, a group of small, independent oyster farms decided two years ago to band together and promote their oysters as the manifestation of a special kind of place: the New Meadows River.
And so the New Meadows River Shellfish Co-op was born. The co-op comprises 11 oyster farms operating on and around the New Meadows River, including two farms in Harpswell waters. The members are coordinating their efforts in the hope of achieving commercial success they could not hope to attain alone.
Peter Rand, owner of Dingley Cove Oysters, is treasurer of the cooperative. On a sunny late afternoon in early June, he took me out on his skiff to tour his “workplace,” the lower end of Dingley Cove, outside Cundy’s Harbor. His operation occupies a protected expanse of water nestled between Hopkins Island and the western shore of the cove. In addition to his skiff, his operation involves a raft moored in the cove.
The raft is equipped with a small crane for lifting and lowering the cages that protect the oysters while they grow. The raft also supports a cylindrical plastic tumbler. Tumbling the oysters breaks off the leading edge of the shells, inducing the oysters to develop the deeper cupped shape favored by the market.
“Some farms don’t have a tumbler barge with a crane for going around lifting cages,” Rand observed.
Lack of equipment is the kind of thing the cooperative hopes to address, perhaps by buying devices that could be shared by members. For example, Rand thinks it would make sense for the cooperative to acquire an upweller.
Upwellers are essential elements of the systems used to raise seed oysters, the tiny oysters farmers buy and then grow to marketable size.
Seed oysters are nurtured in large plastic tubes called silos. The upwellers propel water upward into the silos, bringing the seed more of the nutrient-rich water it needs to grow.
If the cooperative owned its own upweller, members could cut costs by purchasing smaller seed from hatcheries.
“I think it would benefit us,” Rand said.
A fundamental goal of the cooperative is to help its members compete with bigger, better-financed operations. “As small farmers, we wanted to have the same efficiencies that larger farmers have,” Rand said.
Another area being explored is shared labor. Because the oysters require constant care, any labor disruption could cause serious losses. Organisms that accumulate on the cages compete with the oysters for food. To protect the oysters, the cages must be “flipped” periodically. This entails raising the cages above the surface, extracting the rigid plastic mesh containers that hold the oysters, turning the containers over and putting them back in the cages. After a day or two, the cages are lowered back into the water. Oysters can survive that long out of water; the marine growth cannot.
The need for flipping means Rand cannot leave his oysters unattended for more than a week or so. Shared labor would provide farmers backup if they became sick or injured, or simply wanted to take time off.
Caleb Rand cleans oysters on a raft in Dingley Cove. The 22-year-old college student works part time for his father, Peter Rand, who owns Dingley Cove Oysters. (JOHN GORMLEY PHOTO)
So far the co-op’s accomplishments have been modest. The cooperative has developed an attractive website that provides capsule descriptions of the member farms and a list of the cooperative’s goals, which include growing the best oysters possible, taking care of natural resources and advancing the brand of the shellfish they grow.
Last year, the co-op sponsored two oyster-sampling events at Holbrook’s Lobster Grille in Cundy’s Harbor. This year, it tentatively plans to host an open farm day in mid-July and its Holbrook’s on the Half-shell tasting in early fall, with the possibility of another event in August.
Soon, however, the co-op may embark on a transformative venture: acquiring property that would serve as a base of operations. This would be a place where members could bring their oysters, prepare them for sale, and store them for pickup and distribution.
Shared equipment such as an upweller might be kept here. The farmers could hold events to help the public better understand what they do. A roadside stand for direct retail sales is a possibility. So too is a small demonstration oyster farm.
Ownership of real estate would represent a big change for the members. Until now the group has served largely as a forum for sharing information and discussing initiatives. With the cooperative’s first big investment, the farmers would assume financial responsibility for the capital and operating costs.
Mackin Pulsifer, vice chair of the Holbrook Community Foundation, views the cooperative’s efforts to acquire property as a huge step forward. “It’s a tremendous commitment,” he said.
The Holbrook Community Foundation served as a kind of midwife at the birth of the oyster farmers’ cooperative. It paid the legal fees for drafting the state charter creating the cooperative.
The goals of the cooperative and the Holbrook Community Foundation lined up perfectly, according to Pulsifer. The foundation, known for its acquisition and refurbishment of Holbrook’s Wharf in Cundy’s Harbor, is dedicated to the support and preservation of the working waterfront. The oyster farmers seemed to personify the working waterfront. The foundation encourages environmentally sound and sustainable marine activity. Oysters do not require feeding nor do they excrete into the water, as farmed fish do. As filter feeders, oysters actually help to clean the waters they inhabit.
“It was such a natural,” Pulsifer said of the alliance.
Jordi St. John, owner of Merritt Island Oysters, was named president of the cooperative at the time of its founding. “For the first year and a half if was just conversation,” he said.
Now, with initiatives such as the creation of a physical operations center, he thinks the cooperative is reaching a more mature state of development. Nevertheless, the evolution of the cooperation will not erode the importance of the individual farms and their distinctive output. Just as with wines from the same region, “there are subtle differences in the flavor profile,” St. John explained.
“We will all keep our individual farm names,” St. John said. “We don’t want to lose that identity.”
John Gormley is a retired journalist who lives in Cundy’s Harbor. His interests include fishing, tennis and gardening.