September 21, 2023
Maine Ocean Farms
The oysters produced by Maine Ocean Farms are regarded as some of the best on the East Coast and are served across Maine in a variety of restaurants.
Describe your business in one sentence.
We are Maine Ocean Farms, growers of the “Wet Smack Oyster”, one of Maine’s most uniquely delicious oysters.
What unique perspective/skills do you bring to your business?
The three founding partners at Maine Ocean Farms came to Aquaculture from the commercial marine side of things all holding USCG Masters licenses as well as a diverse set of additional practical skills including carpentry, ship building, CAD, SCUBA Diving, accounting, engineering, etc. When we began in 2017 we knew almost nothing about oysters, but as professional mariners we knew boats and how to work on the water. We designed and built our operation around the idea that we love the ocean and want to spend our days working on the water while being able to go home at the end of the day. The communication and operational models we use in the planning, operating and growth of Maine Ocean Farms draw heavily on our shared experience of working on ships. Clear communication, well defined managerial roles and responsibilities and the idea that “we are all in the same boat” are central to the smooth operation and the success we have achieved so far. Coming to oyster farming with all of that in mind yet knowing very little about oysters themselves we made strategic and operational decisions based on what we felt were simply the best ways to achieve our goals of creating a viable Aquaculture business without and of the perceived “best practices” or status quos being engrained. We just did it “right” regardless of industry standards and our efforts have produced a singularly unique and premium oyster. We have strong ties to our communities, created desirable jobs and produce healthy food with a net positive impact on local ecology and the communities we live and work in. While we have achieved all of these goals we are constantly trying to produce a higher quality product more efficiently, create an exceptional workplace environment and find new ways to support our communities.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in starting your business? In running it?
In the first year we had some steep learning curves. Especially with regard to our “gear”. The ocean is such a dynamic environment to work in and everything is a trade-off. For example what might be the strongest connection between two pieces of gear in a static environment is not well suited to the constant movement of the ocean and the chafe it produces. We had som major gear failures and some rough days of re-engineering and re-fitting every bag on the farm. Luckily we had a growth trajectory that allowed us to learn these hard lessons at a scale that was manageable. We are still learning, and most of the new lessons are smaller refinements rather than creating new processes and equipment from scratch, some of which as far as we know didn’t exist until we built it.
Growing oysters in Casco Bay takes between 2-3 years to go from seed to market. Not exactly a great model from the bookkeeping side of things, but it is our reality. The delay from capital and labor inputs to market return is a difficult one to get ahead of. If you can’t spend money now on moorings, boats, gear and labor to grow oysters for two full seasons you won’t have any oysters to sell down the line to recover those costs. It’s a constant balancing act. Having access to Aquaculture specific financing/capital to achieve our farm growth plan in a timeline that won’t result in chasing our tail on the books for years is such a game changer and will allow us to achieve those goals far more rapidly that we would otherwise have been able to.
Did CEI help you overcome any of these challenges? Describe how you have worked with our team.
We have a premium product, refined and proven processes, an exceptional Farm Team, well established customers and a demand for unique product already so high we will likely never be able to fully satisfy it. The Financing available through CEI’s “Wicked Fast Loan” and “Sea Farm Loan” will give us the additional capital required to grow our business and take our proven product, concept and business model to a scale that will create additional jobs, increase product sales by ~700% from 2022 levels over the next 2-3 years. Without access to this kind of capital focused on Sea Farming it would be very difficult to grow our production to scale in a viable timeline.
What are your hopes for your business in the next 1–3 years?
This 2023 season will see us build out the remainder of our 10 Acre lease, add one more workboat to the fleet which will allow our “Farm Team” to work independent of our mooring installation work and as we bring Farm Tours online as an additional revenue stream taking advantage of the fact that we have the boats and four USCG licensed Captains on our team. We will also be increasing our annual oyster seed input to our “full-scale lease” quantity, meaning in 2025 we will be operating our lease at 100% capacity and market output.
In the following (2024-2025) years we will be building “commercial grade” versions of our proprietary one-of-a-kind processing equipment as we increase operational efficiency and longevity, building additional infrastructure and continue to invest in our workforce development and training.
What steps are you taking to reduce your business’s carbon footprint and/or make your business environmentally sustainable? What might make it easier to improve your business’s environmental sustainability or climate resilience?
In 2020 amid the pandemic and the closure of restaurants we saw virtually our entire oyster market disappear we found ourselves with the additional bandwidth to take a side project and turn it into a new company that could benefit not only our farm but the entirety of the shellfish harvesting and distribution industry. We were so put-off by the plastic mesh bags (onion bags, bait bags, etc) available to harvest and deliver our oysters that we searched for a sustainable alternative. We exhausted every sample of cotton mussel sock and Bio-plastic mesh, etc we could source, none of which were a suitable alternative based our our needs and standards. So we created a new product with a manufacturer we found in Austria who specializes in biodegradable and compostable food packaging. Together we created the “Ocean Harvest Bag TM” the first and only cellulose (wood fibers from Beech trees) based, biodegradable, home compostable shellfish packaging on the market in the US and formed Ocean Farm Supply LLC, the exclusive distributor of Ocean Harvest Bags in the US and Canada. The Beech wood used is sustainably harvested and processed using carbon neutral forestry practices and techniques like regenerative growth without replanting. We bring it directly from Rotterdam to Portland, Maine by ship making even the carbon footprint of shipping quite minimal. When you’re finished it can be thrown in your household compost and it will break down completely in as little as 12 weeks. We have been using it exclusively on our farm for about two years now and are distributing to roughly 50 growers, distributors and others all around the country. If you’ve bought un-shucked oysters in Portland, ME in the last year or two there is a good chance they were packaged in the Ocean Harvest Bag TM by one of our local industry partners.
In your opinion, what makes a job a good job? How are you providing good jobs for yourself and your employees?
A good job, in my opinion is one that where you wake up in the morning (most of the time) excited to jump out of bed and get to work. One where you have accountability, ownership and passion for the work itself as well as the mission and values of the business. One that offers new challenges and leaves you with a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. We have built an exceptional team at Maine Ocean Farms, or rather they have built it themselves. The somewhat counterintuitive common thread aside from many of us being professional mariners is that everyone on our team took the initiative to reach out to us and ask if we had any openings. Obviously we can’t hire everyone who sends us an email and certainly we benefit from the fact that Aquaculture is a hot sector at the moment and people want to get on the water. That initiative seems to be rarer these days than ever, but it is one of the key characteristics that we look for. We want Maine Ocean Farms to be an exceptional place to work and encourage and expect input and ideas from everyone who is part of our team. We could not do this without our team and we want to make sure they know that. As owners we are constantly looking for ways to maintain team member engagement, development and growth through training, ownership in what we do, accountability and autonomy within defined roles with clear and explicit expectations and communication at the center.
Learn more about Maine Ocean Farms:
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