Peter Rand heads back to land after checking on his aquaculture leases in 2019. Rand is an organizer of a new cooperative of shellfish harvesters hoping to market the New Meadows River as prime aquaculture grounds Nathan Strout / The Times Record

BRUNSWICK — Like the notes on a glass of Bordeaux or a Tuscan red wine, oysters take on the flavor of the region where they are grown, creating a distinct brand for the seller. 

This regional brand is something that a local group of 12 shellfish growers, The New Meadows Shellfish Cooperative, is hoping to promote with the help of a $12,000 grant from Maine Sea Grant’s Buoy Maine project

The cooperative, which kicked off in early 2020 with the help of Harpswell’s Holbrook Community Foundation, was instrumental in keeping the 12 growers afloat as they navigated a vastly changed distribution landscape at the onset of the pandemic when most restaurants and wholesalers closed at the start of the harvesting season. 

This changed landscape is also what spurred the University of Maine to create Buoy Maine.

Oyster harvesters Randy Hamilton (left) and Jordi St. John shuck oysters from Getchell’s Ledge and Dingley Cove at a New Meadows Shellfish Cooperative tasting event this summer. Photo by Katrina St. John

The project was created this year to bolster seafood and tourism-related industries, highlight the Maine “brand” and experience, build resiliency and help businesses recover during the COVID-19 pandemic. The cooperative is one of 10 organizations awarded with either $12,000 or $14,000.

“We’re developing and marketing the New Meadows River as a district and a distinct growing region in Maine, using a model similar to the wine, cheese and other fine foods throughout other regions in the world,” said Sam Dorval, co-owner of Ferda Farms LLC and a member of the cooperative. “This will allow farmers to benefit from a shared effort and encourages tourism and destination eating. We’re using concentrations of the farms in our region to give Maine another destination beyond the Damariscotta Region.”

The money will be used to develop marketing materials for the group and to create a template for other oyster producing regions in Maine who may want to follow their lead. 

The first step will be to create a sort of “wine label,” Dorval said, that certifies the oysters are New Meadows grown. They also plan to create an interactive website that will help drive publicity and direct customers to the site. The group will report back with their success in six months. 

“Although this program is designed to deal with market challenges brought by COVID, it really is looking toward the future,” Dorval said. “This groundwork is not just for COVID, it’s for the small farms to help them gain a leverage to compete in industries and also get a template to other places as well, to get economic stimulus, drive people into Maine and really create a big awareness for the Maine brand and show that we have quality products.”

Maine’s aquaculture industry continues to boom. 

According to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, commercially harvested marine were valued at roughly $674 million in 2018 — a $26 million increase over 2018 and the second-highest of all time. 

Maine growers harvested 3.2 million pounds of oysters last year, an increase of 460,911 pounds over the year before, resulting in a $336,00 jump and a total value of about $7.6 million. Behind lobsters, elvers and soft shell clams, oysters are the state’s fourth most valuable species. 

As the popularity of oyster aquaculture increases, individual farmers have smaller and smaller voices, said Peter Rand, a Harpswell-based oyster farmer who helped start the cooperative. 

“We want to be an advocate” in the industry, he said, and serve as a voice when bills or leasing issues come up. “We can hold more sway as a group.” 

It also provides an opportunity to exchange ideas and techniques. 

“Twelve minds are better than one,” group President Jordi St. John said. “Everyone has different ways of oystering and it’s not as much of a competitive industry. It’s like wine or beer, where restaurants are going to want different types on the menu.”

“This really adds to the quality of seafood in Maine and the Maine experience,” said Keri Kaczor, a Buoy Maine coordinator. “Oysters come out of different regions in Maine and they’re all a little different,” she said. “They’re bringing forward the uniqueness in the community and telling the story of small family farms… on top of delivering awesome products.” 

The 12 farms working together demonstrates that “we can do more together than we can do alone,” she added, which aligns with the essence of the entire project.

“The more collaboration we have to help us climb the steep slope out of this mess the better… They showed that lift in a clear, tangible way. We’re very excited,” she said.

The New Meadows Cooperative isn’t the only group to band together. 

Another awardee, a co-op of nine oyster farms on the Damariscotta River is also working toward “advancing the brand of Damariscotta-grown oysters,” according to a pitch description. “Developing a regional brand will help bring attention to the diverse tastes of oysters across Maine and will bring name recognition of products to a national level.”

Members of the New Meadows Shellfish Cooperative Include the following: Eider Cove Oysters, Getchell’s Ledge Oysters, Iron Island Oysters, Nice Oyster Company, Merritt Island Oysters, Mill Cove Oysters, Ferda Farms, Long Reach Oysters, Dingley Cove Oysters, Winnegance Oyster Farm, Brimstone Oysters and Cape Small Oysters.

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