Sandy brings a less stormy financial future for oyster farmers

A month after storm Sandy tore across Long Island Sound, Connecticut’s oyster farmers are finally beginning to get a feel for their futures.

While they’re still assessing damage, it appears there was less than from Tropical Storm Irene, though problems vary with location, farming technique and other factors.

But perhaps the best news is that oyster farmers and other shellfish growers will probably not have to absorb storm and other losses themselves for much longer. A deal may be near to bring the shellfish industry nationwide a type of disaster assistance that until now has been largely unavailable.

“We have a verbal commitment that [the U.S. Department of Agriculture] will make a change in the guidelines,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

Brendan Smith and oysters

Oyster grower Brendan Smith checks his crop in their cages.

What he’s talking about is something called the Noninsured Assistance Program, or NAP, run by the Farm Service Agency division of the USDA. The program provides disaster assistance for crops that are not covered by crop insurance — which in Connecticut is everything except a handful of major crops such as tobacco, most nursery plants and corn.

Shellfish is considered a crop because clams and oysters are planted from seed and farmed. Indeed the state’s Bureau of Aquaculture is in the Department of Agriculture. But because of one stipulation in the guidelines, most shellfish has been ineligible for assistance program.

The program currently will cover only oysters grown in baskets or another type of container or clams under protective covering. In Connecticut, each of these methods accounts for about 5 percent of the crop. The traditional farming methods here and elsewhere are to grow oysters on the sea floor and clams buried in sand underwater.

“The volume of oysters that are produced on the bottom — how many cages would it take?” asked David Hopp, a fifth generation clam and oyster grower who has been in the business for 50 years. “It’s like growing corn in flowerpots in the Midwest.”

The hole in assistance program coverage has mainly affected oysters, which are far more susceptible to storms than clams. “I have found oysters that have washed from one part of the plot to another,” Hopp said of his own situation after Sandy. “Some are alive; some are dead.”

That’s been the story through most of the Sound, though oysters can filter their way back to the sea floor as long as they’re not buried by too much sand or mud. The process can take a couple of months.

Even so, Hopp and others have been clamoring for the assistance program for a long time.

“It’s something to fall back on,” he said. “For people just getting started and all, a hit like that — oh my gosh — a hit like that will put you out of business.”

Efforts to close the shellfish loophole in NAP have been underway for the better part of a decade. But last year after Irene they were given new urgency with Connecticut leading the way through Blumenthal’s and Rep. Joe Courtney‘s, D-2nd District, offices.

“The concept is parity,” Blumenthal said. “They should be treated fairly because they cultivate and grow a natural resource and are potentially hit with the same weather catastrophes and other natural disasters that may afflict farmers.”

Such arguments have not changed over the years, but shellfish industry advocates who have been involved in negotiations over the last several months as well as earlier efforts said the USDA seems to finally get it.

The USDA declined to comment on this specific issue.

Blumenthal said unequivocally that there is an agreement with the USDA to change the policy, which he said requires only administrative, not legislative, action. NAP is authorized through the Farm Bill, which has had its own rocky Congressional history.

“We have actual language that would be used,” Blumenthal said. “It’s beyond the concept stage.” And he said the USDA had assured him the change would be made “sooner rather than later.”

Fall starting date?

The widely held presumption is that everything will be in place for shellfish growers to sign up for NAP next fall in time for a Jan. 1, 2014, effective date. That still means sweating out the 2013 hurricane season with no backstop.

The timeline prediction elicited an “I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it” humph from James Markow of the Noank Aquaculture Cooperative. “Their bureaucracy seems to work at a different pace than the others,” he said of USDA.

Markow, however, has been pleasantly surprised to find most of his oysters alive and well after Sandy, though he did lose one boat and had another damaged. As for signing up for NAP: “I’d do it,” he said. “Just so long as it was an affordable number — even for a portion of it — to take a little bit of the risk away.”

According to Tessa Getchis, who many cite as the tireless and key campaigner for the rule change over many years, there will still be a few caveats for shell fishermen. Getchis, who is an extension educator with Sea Grant, a joint program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Connecticut, said shellfish growers will have to own or lease their own plots – not harvest from the wild. And there will be strong and specific crop reporting requirements to prevent fraud.

“We need clear and improved eligibility requirements,” she said. “We need clear reporting requirements both at the application stage and also for those making claims — very specific cookbook-style requirements.”

But she added: “I still imagine we will have to do extensive outreach.”

The annual cost for NAP is $250. But land farmers have found the thresholds for payouts have made even that reasonable price a waste, so many go without. A farmer must have a 50 percent crop loss to trigger NAP help — an unlikely development, many farmers, say even with storms like Irene and Sandy.

The payout is a percentage of the loss above 50 percent.

“No one’s going to get rich off NAP,” said Bob Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, which represents about 1,000 small growers in 14 states. “It’s better than nothing.

“When I’ve lost everything, I’m happy that somebody is there with something as opposed to what we have now, which is nothing.”

But the realities of NAP could be a rude awakening, and Brendan Smith of Thimble Island Oyster Co. is braced for the worst. He farms all his oysters in cages and took about a 90 percent loss in Irene. The mud in the silty area he farms around the Thimble Islands buried the cages and their contents, making them so heavy he broke a hauler getting the cages up.

He also didn’t have NAP then, so the loss was all on him. Now, for the first time, he does.

There was less mud from Sandy, but Smith still estimates an 80 percent loss and has already filed his claim paperwork.


Irene v Sandy oysters

Post Irene oysters, left, were far muddier and heavier than those left behind after Sandy.


“I’m assuming it’s not going to be a ton of money,” he said. “I sure hope it’s worth it to be paying that $250.”

Dave Carey, who directs the aquaculture division of the state Agriculture Department, said he thinks shellfish growers will recognize the benefit of NAP.

“It’s for middle producers, new startup producers, he said. “They’re going to buy it. In some cases if they borrow money, I think financiers will require it.

“Small guys — they don’t need a lot of money, but need enough money to get back into it.”

Carey called the prospect that NAP would be available to shellfish growers nationwide exciting. “We were right from day one,” he said of why the rule should be changed. “It just took a long time to get that across.

“When you look at what Congress intended, they did not mean for 90 percent of the growers to be ineligible.”