Native conservationist now farms oysters in Florida

Deborah Keller works on her oyster farm in Apalachicola Bay, Fla. The oysters harvested there have a taste unique to the region in which they are grown. Keller is able to grow them to the size that restaurants prefer.

After a collapse in the mollusk population, many, including a few Lycoming County natives, are farming oysters in a new wave of effort to bring back the industry that once was a staple of the Florida coast.

Apalachicola Bay is a stretch of about 30 miles on the Florida panhandle that produces 90 percent of Florida’s oysters.

It’s there that Williamsport native Deborah Keller has set up an oyster farm she works with others, including another native of the area.

With an education in environmental studies, Keller has worked on major fundraising and lobbying campaigns and has built partnerships for conservation organizations for most of her career.

“I was an avid birdwatcher here (in Williamsport),” Keller said. “I just fell in love with the outdoors.”

In 1991, the Nature Conservancy recruited her to work in Florida. Keller was placed on the advisory board for a campus of Tallahassee Community College that was trying to create

nature-based training for jobs in the conservation field.

The oyster aquaculture program was its first.

“When helping to put it in place, I thought, ‘That sounds really fun,’ “ Keller said.

She already was very involved in the intricate permitting process needed to create the oyster farms, but she decided to become even more involved.

After Keller worked a year to get all the permits, the first oyster farms came back in 2015.

“All my life I have worked in conservation through telephone meetings … on the computer. I wanted to be outside,” she said.

The collapse

After the BP oil spill in April of 2010 and the months of ocean pollution that followed, a fear that the spill would affect the oyster region of Florida led to a drastic move. All the good oysters were harvested.

“It never actually came, but they harvested all of the next generation of reproducing oysters,” she said. “The Apalachicola region is known around the country for fabulous oysters, but there has been a collapse. A major part of what we’re doing is to revive the industry because it is a sustainable crop and a part of the economic infrastructure.”

The oysters in the region also serve a very important ecological purpose.

“They are absolutely ecosystem engineers,” Keller said. “The loss of oysters in bays created an imbalance, and bringing them back is important. They create clearer water. They are the bedrock of water quality, form reefs, attenuate wave action.”

Farming is going a long way to reestablish those services in the bay.

‘Each has a different taste’

There are many methods to farm oysters, but one of the most widely used in the area is off-bottom farming.

In the shallows off the coast, a linear network of wooden poles and lines dangling in between jut out in lines.

The oysters rest in aquaculture cages rather than on the ocean floor.

Keller and the rest of the farmers wade into the water and manually harvest the oysters. And, depending on where a farm is located, harvest times can vary dramatically.

Each oyster is an embodied taste of the region in which it was farmed, Keller said.

“All up along the East Coast,” she said, “the same type of oyster (lives), but each has a different taste.”

There are about 60 oyster farmers in her area who each are responsible for their own acre-and-a-half, Keller said.

Some are traditional oyster farmers and some are joining the growing movement by farming part-time.

But the variety of people creates a certain kinship, Keller said.

“It’s a community of support,” Keller said. “We learn from each other and, for the most part, support one another.”

Keller, like many of the other farmers, recruits help on her farm.

Michael Barnett, also a native of Williamsport, moved to Tallahassee after he lost his vision in 2013.

Keller and Barnett both were from the area, living in the same region in Florida and didn’t know their mothers worked together.

During a trip to visit Keller, her parents introduced the two.

After talking, Barnett decided he wanted to help out around the farm.

“It was something I wasn’t sure I could do, having lost my vision,” Barnett said. “But being outdoors, hands-on, I immediately enjoyed it. It’s a lot of work, but it’s still very rewarding for me.”

Barnett helped on the farm early on, so the two learned a lot of troubleshooting together.

“Thinking about how we could do something more efficiently or making pieces of equipment, it was a total partnership from that first day,” Keller said.

Growing the operation

Once the oysters are harvested in the thousands, they are sold to restaurants looking for the specific size Keller and the rest of the farmers can give them.

“That was a big objective as a farmer for me,” Keller said. “I wanted to deliver a premium product and that’s all part of keeping the industry alive, keeping product alive and growing as a sustainable food source.”

The industry is exploding in the region — putting literally millions of oysters on the market — but access to oyster seed, or “spat,” has been a challenge for most in Florida.

“This group at the Tallahassee Community College are the pioneers here in Florida,” Keller said. “We sought a lot of help from (a similiar college program in) Alabama.”

The group’s first baby oysters came from a hatchery in Alabama.

Now, they buy baby oysters by the thousands, but access to that seed without hatcheries of their own makes it less self-sufficient. When getting them from another state, another permit process begins.

“But there are two hatcheries coming online this year,” Keller said. “This is really going to help us grow.”