Meet Beth Walton
Off-bottom oyster farming in the southern states of the USA is a relatively new industry and OysterSouth's Executive Director - Beth Walton is on a mission to help it grow.
Beth Walton, and her husband Bill, founded the not-for-profit in 2016. The Waltons had always been involved in aquaculture and also had a small farm in Cape Cod, in the northern USA, for about seven years. When they moved to Alabama, so Bill could take up a position at Auburn University to help jump start the aquaculture industry, Beth was at a loss.
“I was no longer working in shellfish hatcheries, but I still loved the industry so I thought, ‘What can I do?’ I took a part time job on the education side of it and did oyster industry marketing after the BP oil spill, which set me up for OysterSouth,” she says.
Historically, the wild fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico were a robust industry but as wild stocks declined, it became harder to make a living. Modern off-bottom style oyster farms only started around 2011 and the industry isn’t as well established as it is in the north.
“Oyster farming is a way for people to still make a living on the water. We have a lot of people, who were fishermen, now transitioning to oyster farming. We also have a lot of former white collar workers who were looking for a sea change and have become farmers,” Beth says.
“Because everybody is learning, the industry is very supportive and shares information. As former oyster farmers ourselves, we’ve been there, we feel ya and we can put you in touch with people in different parts of the country that can help. We also have members in the south Atlantic states of North and South Carolina, Georgia, and eastern Florida. Even though they’re not in the Gulf they are still part of OysterSouth, and all are relatively new to off-bottom farming when compared to farms on the northern Atlantic coast.”
A local restaurateur who wanted to know more about southern oysters was a catalyst for OysterSouth.
“Bryan Rackley, who is now on our board, owns Kimball House in Atlanta, which was the only place in the south east that had a really nice list of east and west oysters. He wanted to know more about oyster farming in the Gulf. Bill and I realised we had all these people - scientists, growers, restaurants, educators, suppliers, and distributors – who were interested in the industry and we really wanted to do something that would include everyone so we established OysterSouth,” Beth says.
“There is so much more to the industry than just farmers and restaurants.”
The aim of OysterSouth is to connect the dots. Whether that’s putting a farmer who has an issue in touch with another farmer who worked through something similar, partnering with local university research labs or directing media enquiries, Beth says it’s about “bringing all these different pieces of the oyster world together.”
“There are two events we do every year, a fundraiser and an industry symposium. The funds we raise go towards something tangible which farmers can implement. The first year it went towards buying more seed because it was a really bad hurricane season and people lost a lot of seed. This year we wanted to raise funds for farmers to travel to other farms to learn, but because of the pandemic the idea of travel wasn't practical so there’s not a particular theme this year . Instead we know that everybody needs help so we are just going to see who needs what and when they need it,” Beth says.
“The industry symposium is held every spring, we alternate between the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. It’s a chance for students to present their research and the industry to talk about practical farm issues. There's also a trade show and range of social events. As we move forward, we try to add different components to it. We want to have consumers be more engaged with farmers, such as doing tours.”
One of the biggest myths that OysterSouth works to dispel is that the oysters from the southern states are inferior.
“It’s partly perception, there’s a bias of warm versus cold water oysters. The perception is that you get big, muddy oysters that you need a knife and fork to eat them. That's simply not the case. The farmers here are producing an amazing product that looks and tastes fantastic! It’s definitely been a learning curve, people have told us it’s never going to work but as time goes on, they realise that we have a different product with a different price point and different experience,” Beth says.
“We’re not trying to replace the wild fisheries, but offer an alternative. It’s good for everyone if people can still work on the water.”
The Gulf grows the Eastern oyster, which tends to be the preferred variety in the USA.
“The west coast grows a few different varieties, including Pacific oysters, but when the majority of people go to an oyster bar here, what they are going to get is an Eastern oyster,” Beth says.
“On the west coast they are probably just a little bit bigger and less briny, more metallic and almost melon like in flavour. You get a different flavour profile on the Gulf. The Eastern oyster tends to be smaller and sweeter, the farther north you go on the eastern coast of the US, up to New England, the salinity tends to increase.”
As the industry grows, so does OysterSouth.
“We just keep adding more members and it’s nice to feel that sense of community,” Beth says.
“The next step is keeping the industry engaged on the consumer side and have them be the ambassadors for the farmers. They are the ones spending the money at the oyster bars and we want to help them connect with farmers for the product and the experience.
As our numbers and experience grows, we'll in an increasingly strong position to offer the industry here the support it so deserves.”
You can learn more about Beth and Oyster South by clicking HERE. Why not help support this wonderful industry by becoming a member? You can also make a donation, or purchase some of their high quality merchandise.