MCINTOSH COUNTY, Ga. — There’s a new kind of farmer on Georgia’s coast and they’re not growing peaches or peanuts, it’s oysters!
Channel 2 Action News anchor Justin Farmer reports the state’s newest aquaculture industry will bring money, jobs, and seafood on the half shell to Georgia.
This environmentally friendly food could bring millions of dollars to our state.
Georgia oysters have the potential to contribute about $5 million to the state economy and support 193 full and part-time jobs, according to the University of Georgia.
We spoke with Georgia’s oyster farming pioneers and they feel pressure to get this new industry done right.
Bryan Rackley talked about oysters on the half shell like varieties of fine wine.
He said oysters are a vehicle for you to taste what the water tastes like.
“You can get an idea of what the water in each of those areas taste like, because I think that’s what oysters do,” said Rackley. “Depending on where you’re growing your oysters, you’re going to have different water qualities, different levels of food, different things affecting the food.”
At Rackley’s Decatur restaurant, mollusks from Canada, Washington, and Florida have their own flavors. But what diners really want is something more local.
A Chatman County couple, Perry and Laura Solomon, have one of the state’s six leases to farm oysters here in Tidal Rivers on Georgia’s coast.
“We’re the only kind of small family that’s taking this on,” said Laura.
They said they would be delighted if their oysters were the first from Georgia on Rackley’s menu.
“From the Spartina cordgrass to all the little crustaceans and animals that live in the grass. It all contributes to the flavor of the water here,” said Perry.
In 2019, Georgia passed a law legalizing oyster farming.
A UGA marine extension shellfish researcher, Thomas Bliss, used state grant money to learn how well oysters grow in cages floating along Georgia’s coast.
“You don’t have to feed them. … you just have to give them a place to live while you’re growing them,” said Bliss.
Bliss said Georgia’s deep river marshes and high tide make it ideal for growing oysters.
“If all goes well, then that is what you would end up with in about a year’s time,” said Bliss.
Captain Charlie Phillips has an oyster lease in McIntosh County, not far from the clams he’s been growing since 1996.
“In our little 100 miles of coast we could have some serious production and serious jobs,” said Phillips. “I’ve already got infrastructure, I’ve got customer base. I’ve got a crew that’s familiar with working on the water.”
But Phillips is concerned about language in the new law that threatens growers with a three-year license suspension for violators.
The Solomons, who signed their oyster lease in March, have their own concerns. Nearly five months later, they’re still waiting for federal approval to get their oysters in the water.
They said the hardest part is not knowing.
“We feel responsible to our friends or family or community that this is done right. And as some of the first people doing it, you know, we’re going to represent the industry as it grows,” said Perry.
Federal approval is the last step for oyster leaseholders before they start growing. Next, the state is researching harvesting oysters in the summer.
Since the Georgia coast is so warm, they’re learning how to do it safely so you can enjoy raw local oysters on your Georgia beach trip.
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