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Gulf Coast Oyster Farmers To Benefit Top Chef Beer And Dining Event

Blue Collards

"Personally, I love the taste of a Gulf oyster. And I've tasted pretty much all oysters throughout the United States and (from all over the) world. I guess you always prefer what you grew up eating, but I still come back to enjoy the Gulf oyster. I call it the king!"

That's the word from Jim Gossen, the Chairman of the Gulf Seafood Foundation, a group that promotes seafood producers from all the Gulf States.

When Hurricane Michael struck the Gulf Coast last year, images of damage to communities like Mexico Beach were all over the media. But there was also damage that the news cameras could not reach. Many small and medium size oyster operations saw their equipment get washed out to sea.

"It's a big investment for each individual that goes into (the oyster business), and they prepare a year ahead for their production. And if they lose their crop, a lot of times they have no ability to re-buy equipment. Or even if they lose a third of their crop, that's all their profit."

"There's really no programs out to help oyster farmers after an event like (Hurricane Michael)," said Teresa Mercer, one of the owners of TAB Oysters, a small mom and pop oyster farming operation in Wakulla County. She says when they first started their business in 2017, aquaculture farmers could not buy crop insurance. They were in the middle of harvesting a fine first crop of oysters before the hurricane.

"When Michael hit we were at the end of our first crop and had planted seed for our new crop. We had doubled our seed, wanting to build our business. And then Michael hit and wiped out a good portion of our inventory. Our old stuff, our new stuff, everything. So we've gone from selling huge numbers every month to now (where) we're out there scraping up what we can just to make a sale every week."

That brings us to the local effort to helps the Mercers and other oyster farmers in the Gulf. Blue Collards, a locally produced digital magazine and producer of events in the Panhandle including one called Peat and Pearls which is a series of events focused on regional, farm-raised oysters, as well as scotch whiskey.

"At our last event, which was held back in October of last year, we brought in a ton of oyster farmers from Florida out towards Apalachicola and had a great event. And three days after the event everybody went home and Hurricane Michael struck," said Terry Strickland, the founder of Blue Collards. "And a lot of our friends out to the east sustained a lot of damage. And most of these (oyster farmers had young farms), a lot of them were in their first year of operation and it was really kind of a punishing blow."

So Strickland and his team have come up with Barleybrine Oyster and Craft Beer weekend which will raise funds for the Gulf Seafood Foundation’s storm relief efforts through the foundation’s Helping Hands initiative. Strickland said the Helping Hands Initiative started after Hurricane Harvey struck Texas in 2017. "So they started that initiative to give some support back to seafood workers that were affected by that storm. And of course, now are taking that initiative and using it to provide some support to Florida seafood workers affected by Hurricane Michael."

Credit Blue Collards
Top Chef winner Kelsey Barnard-Clark will be the featured chef for Friday evening's beer dinner.

The benefit will be a three-day event, Thursday, April 4 through Saturday, April 6, produced with support from Visit Pensacola. The main event will be Friday evening featuring Chef Kelsey Barnard-Clark, the winner of the latest season of Top Chef.

"She's going to be coming in doing a seated beer dinner for 100 (people)" said Strickland. "It will be five courses with beer pairings from Apalachicola's Oyster City Brewing Company. They're going to be telling a little about how they were affected by the storm. In addition to that, we're going to be having guided oyster tasting with Joseph and Teresa Mercer."

For her part, Teresa Mercer says they are slowly getting the business back on its feet. "We've been able to add a little bit of seed since the hurricane. There's a little bit of new babies out there. So we're slowly getting back going but it's just nothing like it was last year when we were full steam ahead at this time of year."

Click here for tickets and information about the Barleybrine Oyster and Craft Beer Benefit.

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.