NOANK — Under rainy skies turning sunny, Jim Markow, president of Mystic Oysters in Noank, joined by Rep. Joe Courtney, Gov. Ned Lamont and various state officials, spoke at a press conference on the dock outside of his business Tuesday to announce that after months of political pressure by Courtney and state’s congressional delegation, hard-hit shellfish, clam, kelp and seaweed growers are now eligible to receive aid from a USDA program, a change that could open the door to including aquaculture in the 2022 federal Farm Bill.
“It’s a very, very small percentage but it’s something. Some is better than none and we’re happy to have some,” said Markow, of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program 2, known as CFAP 2, that will cover between 8.8 and 10.6 percent of total 2019 sales of aquaculture businesses.
“The COVID really hurt us, it has a huge, huge impact on us. It took away basically 100 percent of the business. How do you make that up?” said Markow.
The total amount of CFAP 2 program aid is as yet undetermined, but it is estimated to provide about $30,000 to the average business.
The aquaculture sector is also eligible for about $450,000 in funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), providing about $10,000 per aquaculture business.
Lamont said the federal programs have provided a financial boost to lessen the economic impact of the pandemic on maritime growers.
“As lobsters are to Maine, oysters are to Connecticut and the Long Island Sound,” said Lamont. “This is a bridge to somewhere, we are going to get through this COVID thing, I know it hit you guys really hard.”
Courtney said aquaculture producers were excluded from the first round of CFAP funding because the industry is still not accepted as an agricultural activity.
“Traditionally shellfish growers have always been the poor cousin of farming and food producers. There’s this institutional hangup about whether aquaculture is in fact farming. And so the first round of CFAP payments actually excluded shellfish growers getting any of the benefits,” he said.
Tessa Getchis, an aquaculture specialist with the Connecticut Sea Grant and UConn Extension Program, said that shellfish farmers were excluded from the federal grant program partly because they were assumed to be already covered by the funding from NOAA.
Getchis worked with Sea Grant Director Sylvain De Guise, and David Carey, director of the Bureau of Aquaculture & Laboratory Services at the state Department of Agriculture, to create an anonymous survey to document the impact of the pandemic on the industry.
According to a preliminary report, 37 of the state’s 49 aquaculture businesses had completed the survey as of March 24. Nearly 90 percent of the respondents reported that revenues had decreased in February and March by between 50 and 100 percent, with a drop of 93 percent compared to revenue in the period in 2019.
Restaurants, the major market for raw shellfish, were ordered closed by executive order to diners in Connecticut on March 16. Some producers continued to sell at local farmers markets and online.
Survey data showed that more than half of respondents had laid off in total 259 full-time workers and 12 part-time workers — or about 70 percent of the workforce — in February and March. Half of respondents reported that their produce was returned or destroyed after delivery to restaurants that had closed and to wholesalers. At the same time, oysters grew beyond market size and inventory accumulation threatened the space needed for new crops.
State Agriculture Commissioner Bryan Hurlburt said the survey was critical in quickly capturing the economic losses and provided the data needed to secure funding from the federal government.
“It’s what we used to apply for the NOAA funds because we knew what the gap was, and then we could make the argument to USDA because we knew NOAA is going to be $450,000 and we knew that the gap was a couple of million dollars and it was clear that we had the data,” he said. “We were the only state that was able to make that presentation to USDA because they moved so quickly to capture what was happening.”
“The farmers have care and custody, manage the inventory, and have pest management and all the things a plant or livestock farm has to do, but it’s underwater so you can’t see it and so translating that has been a difficult journey,” said Bryan Hurlburt, commissioner of the state’s Department of Agriculture.
In May, after the shellfish farmers were excluded from the first round funding, Courtney pressured USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue and U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to reverse a decision preventing aquaculture growers from receiving CFAP funds. Again in July, Courtney and the state’s congressional delegation met with Perdue, and pressed House and Senate leaders to include shellfish farmers in the agriculture program. That was followed up by another letter to Perdue in September.
Finally, on Sept. 18, the USDA announced that Long Island Sound aquaculture farmers would be eligible for CFAP 2.
Hurlburt said that it’s been a constant battle to get the USDA to understand that oysters and clams in Long Island Sound are farmed and the approval represents a giant hurdle crossed, a process that began in the 2014 farm bill.
“The farmers have care and custody, manage the inventory, and have pest management and all the things a plant or livestock farm has to do, but it’s underwater so you can’t see it and so translating that has been a difficult journey,” he said. “In 2014 the farm bill made a big step and this is another big step to get this normalized and institutionalized at USDA so that aquaculture has access to all USDA programs.”
Aquaculture farmer Norman Bloom, who runs Norm Bloom and Son, LLC, in Norwalk, with his son, Jimmy Bloom, said a lot of people don’t realize that aquaculture farming operates in three-year cycles, from planting seed to harvesting the oysters three years later.
“If we don’t do the work this year, we’re also going to be damaged three years from now. It’s not like we can just stop and next year start up, plant the seeds and roll it out at the end of the year,” he said. “We have to keep the boats going, we call it shifting. We’ve got to move our product each year, from ground to ground. If we didn’t clean the grounds, they would just grow over and it would take us years to catch up to get to where we are now, we have to keep it going everyday.”
Markow, whose business includes a hatchery, said the aquaculture industry is largely invisible to most consumers, who only see the final product.
“You can see the market end. You can see the boats come in, you can see the boxes in the cooler, but you can’t see the farming. Our farm is all underwater, so we have to protect it by going out and working it and cleaning it and moving grounds,” he said. “We have maybe 15 oyster boats but only one market boat that brings the product in. The rest of the fleet supports the market boat.”
He said he’s been oyster farming for about 45 years and was hopeful that the eligibility will help define aquaculture as agriculture going forward.
“It’s another way to stay alive. Some help is better than no help and it’s very helpful for them to recognize us and to have us put as farmers instead of just being in this gray area where we’ve always been and that’s a huge help. I think that will help us a lot in the future … and that we can be part of the farm bill in 2022,” he said.
Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that total amount of CFAP2 funding is yet to be determined