Va. Shore native ready to plant oyster farm

(Delmarva Now) -- After summers of working on the water and semesters filled with business classes, Daniel Mears is ready to make his foray into the oyster aquaculture industry.

Mears, 21, will be graduating in December from James Madison University with a degree in business management.

Upon receiving his diploma, the Accomack County native will return to the Eastern Shore to begin the full-time operation of his business, Saltyside Seafarms.

"I gained all the practical, operational knowledge growing oysters and the business side I learned from JMU," said Mears. "I hope I can successfully combine those two and make a living back home."

Selling oysters has been a tradition for Mears' paternal relatives dating back to the 1600s.

Every man, including his late grandfather and father, Jeffrey, has gotten to "enjoy some aspect" of the family's wild oyster grounds leased out of Wachapreague, Mears said.

In the summer of 2010, while he was still a student at Nandua High School, Mears began selling wild oysters locally.

The idea of starting an oyster business was not his initial career plan, however.

Mears' first major choice was engineering and then his interests in finance and economics led him to considering jobs in accounting or on Wall Street.

After settling on business management, Mears knew he wanted to work with people but he didn't think a typical managerial position was right for him.

"I knew at some point I would just get mad I was away from the water," he said.

Mears gained his knowledge about farm-raised shellfish while working summers in Willis Wharf at Broadwater Seafood and H.M. Terry Co., Inc.

It was at the latter aquaculture business where Mears' uncle, Charles Dennis, taught him the start to end process of selling oysters harvested from Hog Island Bay.

Mears learned that in order to maintain the oyster market size of 3 inches, the seed must be planted on the bayside where salinity levels and water flow prevent the shellfish from growing too fast and having a "snippy," or long and skinny, shell.

"On the Eastern Shore, we'll eat oysters at any size but at a raw bar or restaurant they want oysters to be perfect," he said.

With the help of his father, Mears acquired a lease of 6 acres of oyster grounds in Pungoteague Creek near Harborton last spring.

The pair did meet some opposition from Harborton residents who were against the lease because of possible congestion and negative impacts on community programs.

In addition to helping his son deal with "roadblocks" from private citizens and government entities, Jeffrey Mears has aided in securing financing for his son's business.

Most recently, the 21-year-old was approved for a young farmer's loan from the USDA.

"I'm providing any support I can to get him off the ground," said Jeffrey Mears.

"He's got a good education; a good head on his shoulders. I know he's capable of doing it," he added.

While he still plans to sell wild oysters, the primary focus of Mears' business will be his farm-raised oysters, which he said are more sustainable.

He noted there are more governmental restrictions with harvesting wild oysters, plus the triploid oyster that is farm-raised contains an extra chromosome than a natural diploid and thus is less prone to diseases.

Mears said he plans to directly sell to restaurants and raw bars in cities like Baltimore and Charleston and has no intention of "overtaking" local aquaculture businesses.

"I'm not looking to be the biggest seafood supplier on the East Coast and I'm not trying to compete with any local watermen," said Mears. "I'm trying to find my own markets and make a living doing that."


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