The Town of Southold is debating how to allow shellfish farmers to set up roadside stands to sell farmed oysters, scallops and clams, much as traditional land-based farmers do.
Town officials and farmers want to make sure the resurgent East End shellfish industry remains viable.
"The only way to keep farming on the East End is to keep farming profitable," said Karen Rivara, a shellfish farmer and member of the Southold Agricultural Advisory Committee.
In the early 1900s, the shellfish industry employed hundreds of people in Eastern Long Island. In 1950, more than 1 million bushels of oysters were landed in Southold. But the industry in the Peconic Bay virtually disappeared in the 1980s, a victim of brown tide and a shutdown of baby oysters from suppliers in Connecticut.
The industry slowly has been coming back, said Rivara, president of Aeros Cultured Oyster Company, but hurdles remain.
Brown and mahogany tides, which don't affect human health, continue to be an issue for shellfish, particularly juvenile oysters, according to Cornell Cooperative Extension researchers. The occasional closure of shellfishing beds for bacteria isn't a concern for commercial farmers as much as it is for the wild harvesters, because commercial growers have chosen to lease land in areas that typically aren't affected, according to Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Current town code allows for farm stands, but they have to be on or adjacent to the grower's property. That's fine for above-ground tillers, but not practical for crops sowed in Peconic Bay or Long Island Sound.
"Unless you have people put scuba tanks on, it's not going to work," Rivara said with a smile.
A few summers ago, one shellfish farmer set up a farm stand, but the town wasn't sure how to deal with it and shut it down.
"It was the perfect place for a farm stand, it just wasn't underwater," Rivara said.
Still, Southold officials want to make sure roadside shellfish stands don't become de facto oyster bars, selling beer and wine and playing music.
Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said he supports the concept and wants the shellfish industry to thrive.
But there's a line, he said, where a farm stand veers toward restaurant territory. Some oysters or clams on the half-shell would be fine, Russell said. But turning farm stands into party spots?
"That's a huge concern," he said.
Rivara said she expects one or two of the 35 active state-licensed commercial shellfish farmers on the East End to start farm stands this summer if the law is changed.
"Farmers have to have a way to sell their product directly to customers," Southold Agriculture Committee chairman Chris Baiz said.
Wholesale, farmers get about 50 to 55 cents for an oyster, Rivara said. At a high-end restaurant, they can retail for $3 a piece or more.
She and business partner Jim Markow grow algae in a greenhouse as food for the oysters, spawn the oysters in warm baths -- "They think it's the Fourth of July," she said -- and allow the floating oyster larvae to attach themselves to crushed-up shells.
These "spat," about the size of a pinhead, are put on the bottom of the Peconic Estuary, where they take 18 months to two years to develop into mature oysters. Then they're ready for a squeeze of lemon -- perhaps at a farm stand this summer.
Southold Town's oyster harvest (in bushels)