DEBORAH KELLER RAISES OYSTERS AND THE NEXT GENERATION OF OYSTER FARMERS
Words by Jennifer Stewart Kornegay
“Being at farmers markets is so, so much fun,” says Deborah Keller. “People are really interested in what I’m doing, and it’s so cool to educate them on it.” But these folks aren’t stopping at her stand and smelling strawberries or picking through piles of tomatoes and asking how she’s growing such great veggies. That’s because Deborah is not tilling fields and planting produce; Deborah’s an oyster farmer.
More and more people are becoming fans of off-bottom oyster farming, but in the South’s coastal waters (the Gulf of Mexico and southern Atlantic), it’s still somewhat new. Every farm has its own process, but the primary concept remains pretty much the same. Farmers place baby oysters (the same species native to Southern waters) into mesh bags or baskets that are suspended in saltwater bays. Just as they would on wild oyster beds, the oysters pull food from the seawater they filter through their shells, and grow. There’s no genetic modification, and no chemicals or medications are used. It’s a process that works in harmony with Mother Nature while providing the advantage of increased control. In approximately nine to 18 months, the farmers harvest mature oysters for oyster lovers to eat.
Deborah, whose nickname and brand name for her oysters is Oyster Mom, entered oyster farming in 2015, putting her first babies in the waters of her 1.5-acre farm in Oyster Bay, Wakulla County, Florida, in 2016. The location is just south of Tallahassee and has proven to be a prime spot for growing healthy, delicious oysters, since it’s surrounded by the protected lands of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and gets very little stream runoff, resulting in clean, clear waters. “And we’re attached to the Gulf, so my oysters are getting well-fed, and our salinity here, in my opinion, is perfect,” she says. “My oysters have a fresh flavor with a slightly sweet and buttery finish.”
For the 65-year-old who has worked for The Nature Conservancy for the last 29 years, oyster farming is simply an extension of her overall conservation philosophy. “Oyster aquaculture provides incredible habitat for everything else in the bay,” she says.
“When I first started this, I wouldn’t see much other wildlife when I was out on the water at the farm. Now I have schools of redfish, sheepshead, a few sharks, and tons of crabs that are always there. I swear they live right under my farm now, and I love seeing that.”
Her commitment to do her part for the environment is matched by the work and devotion she puts into raising her bivalve babies. This devotion earned her the Oyster Mom moniker. But she’s equally concerned with nurturing the next crop of oyster farmers, serving as a mentor to folks aspiring to join the oyster aquaculture industry. “Helping train other oyster farmers is another big part of why I’m doing this,” she says. Five years after starting her farm, she’s had six other farmers work for her and with her to learn the job firsthand. They’ve all since moved on to start their own farms. “I really enjoy helping others get their feet wet in this industry,” she says. “Several of the people I’ve trained have been young people who love the water, love the outdoors, and really didn’t want to end up in a desk job. Being able to help them enter this and build a life and a business doing this is so rewarding.” Sometimes, they teach her. “They’ve got innovative ideas and definitely a stronger back than me,” she says.
While farmed oysters are taking off, for a long time many farms were selling most of their harvests to restaurants, but Deborah has always sold the bulk of her oysters directly to consumers. It’s a model some other farmers are now adopting (at least in part) due to the restaurant changes and shutdowns in the wake of COVID-19. “Since I’m still working with The Nature Conservancy, I have kept my farm small by design, so I can work it part time,” she says. The size means her harvests have always been more suited to moving from the water straight to consumers. Customers can call her to place orders. They can even order online at the Red Hills Online Farmers Market Pickup Hub. Or, they can find her at area farmers markets, where she relishes interacting with customers face to face and supplying them with fresh oysters straight from the source. “I’ve done really well at the markets with lots of repeat customers,” she says.
In just the last few years, oyster farming in the South has expanded rapidly, but Deborah sees a bright future that calls for even more farmers. “There is so much more room for growth in this industry,” she says. “We are just now getting our distribution ramped up to get oysters beyond our state’s borders and up into the Midwest. So many people love these oysters—not just mine, but all Southern farmed oysters. So, the demand is definitely there.” And she’s ready to lend her experience and expertise to anyone interested, although she stresses she’s not the only one. “We are all getting better at this; I’ve learned so much in my time,” she says, “and the oyster aquaculture family is such a sharing community. We have a great group happy to share knowledge and to learn from each other. It’s pretty neat.”