Steve Sturgis has pulled his pickup to the boat ramp at Cherrystone Aqua-Farms, in Cape Charles, Virginia, near the southern tip of the 70-mile-long peninsula that makes up the state's Eastern Shore. "We've lucked out, our guys are coming in right now," he says.
Sturgis had just been talking about the partnership he's been a part of since 1988 that farms clams on leased bottom of the Chesapeake Bay. A boat crew of four begins offloading bag after red-mesh bag of clams -- as many as 100,000 this trip -- onto a pallet held by a forklift. The clams are then driven into the processing facility 50 yards away for cleaning and sorting.
Like any livestock, the clams offer diversification in the operations run by Sturgis and his two sons, Kyle and Jarrett. Their 1,500-acre family farm has never shied away from trying products with potential profit. Surrounded on three sides by water, the eastern shore is geographically isolated yet gaining popularity as a vacation getaway.
"We've been discovered," says Steve of the tourism, "but that ends up limiting your land base." As we drive, he points out 200 acres here and 600 acres there that have transitioned from farms to housing developments, golf courses or other businesses. One upside, though, is that many retired landowners (and some absentee owners) want their land farmed or have placed the property in conservation easements that require it remain in agriculture.
The result is that the Sturgises custom-farm for others. "If there are enough acres available, I'd travel 30 miles to custom-farm," Steve says. "But, we can usually do all we need nearby, though, because nobody wants to own a combine."
The family grows corn, wheat, soybeans and edible beans, along with sweet corn and clams. They raise greenhouse lettuce and do custom-farming. In a separate venture, Kyle and Jarrett grow several acres of pumpkins, squash and sweet corn. Jarrett also has a partnership with a non-family friend growing oysters in the Bay.
Steve Sturgis and a longtime partner lease about 20 acres of Chesapeake Bay bottom as C&S Seafood. Their multiple clam beds are each 12 feet by 60 feet, with up to 50,000 tiny baby clams, known as seeds, placed in the mud at the bottom of the bed. The clams are covered with a fine netting to prevent them from drifting and to protect them from predators like bullfish, rays and crabs. The clams will grow for the next 11/2 to 2 years before being harvested.
At any given time, C&S Seafood has about 12 million claims growing in the bay. Each clam is worth 12 to 23 cents, depending on the market. For example, 12-cent clams mean the load they brought in that morning represents about $12,000 gross income.
Clams work from a cash-flow standpoint because they are planted and harvested year-round. "Some days, we've had to break through ice to get to the beds," Steve explains. In addition, undersized clams sorted out at Cherrystone Aqua-Farms can be replanted in the bay to continue growing.
OPEN TO OPPORTUNITIES
Steve, Kyle and Jarrett Sturgis don't hold too tight to preconceived notions about what they can and can't do.
"We're always open-minded, looking for new and better things to help us run more efficiently or be more profitable," says Jarrett, 32, who functions as operations manager -- the machinery guy -- for the farm. "Growing up, all I knew was clamming and farming," he says. "I'd come back on the boat at 9 or 10 a.m. and then work the farm. I loved playing in the dirt and playing outside."
Several years ago, a retiring farmer asked Jarrett and Kyle if they wanted to take over his 4- to 5-acre pumpkin operation. They agreed, continuing the pumpkins along with various decorative squash. The brothers then incorporated sweet corn into the family operation. Prior to the pandemic, the family ran a small market store attached to a greenhouse (Kyle's idea) where they grew lettuce.
COVID caused them to close the store, and staffing issues have prevented them from reopening. The family had originally planned several greenhouses, but they haven't yet built beyond the solitary greenhouse.
Fortunately, they sell most of their pumpkins and sweet corn to the same wholesaler as their lettuce. The family also sells sweet corn to local individuals -- the demand is high after several years of selling at the farmstand, and the Sturgises get telephone calls asking for it.
Both sons have a variety of work experiences. "Dad was adamant about us finding a job off the farm initially," says Kyle, 35. He worked for nine years as an agronomist for Helena Agri-Enterprises before making the move back home to farm.
"I really wanted to come back and help Dad," Kyle says. "Labor has always been an issue." In addition to starting the greenhouse, Kyle also diversified: He now works full time as a field service director and in product sales for Virginia Farm Bureau.
Jarrett and his non-family partner currently have half a million oysters growing in the bay -- but the two of them do all the work themselves. Expansion in that realm would require another employee or two. As with clams, being able to harvest year-round helps with cash-flow.
EYE TO THE FUTURE
In the next five to 10 years, Kyle envisions the possibility of adding grain storage to the operation, taking advantage of market shifts to get better premiums. That may or may not involve additional land becoming available.
"I don't want to take anything away from anyone else," Kyle says, "but if something does become available, we'd like to be in the mix. But, there's only so many ways to slice a pie here on this little sliver of Virginia."
Asked how he sees the operation changing over the next decade, Steve initially jokes: "I hope they are doing it and I'm not. I'm 63 years old." More seriously, he says that growing up on the eastern shore "has been phenomenal" for himself and his children. "The fishing, hunting, camping and water is always nearby. I never wanted to talk the boys out of farming, because I love it."
The sentiment seems mutual.
THE BUSINESS OF BIVALVES
To hear Steve Sturgis talk, Cape Charles-based Cherrystone Aqua-Farms is solely responsible for the existing commercial clam industry along the east coast. "Not hardly," says Chad Ballard III, president and owner of Cherrystone. "My grandfather and father took work that had been done at the academic level in regards to getting clams to spawn and adapted it for mass production."
The Ballard family began in the shellfish business in 1895, gathering wild oysters and eventually clams, along the Virginia seaside and the rivers emptying into the Chesapeake Bay. By the 1950s and 1960s, disease, overfishing and water contamination in the bay were devastating the bivalve populations (oysters, clams and mussels). The Ballards actually closed their oyster business in the 1970s.
Not long after, though, Ballard's grandfather, Chad Ballard, was paying attention to work being done at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. The research found that clams could be coaxed to spawn in a controlled environment. They put that information to work.
"We trick them into spawning by mimicking water temperature, salinity and food sources in nature," Ballard explains. "Our version of a honeymoon suite featuring champagne and Marvin Gaye on the stereo." Even so, less than 1% of resulting clams produced survive the initial spawn in the hatchery. "We start with billions of seeds and end up with millions," he says.
By the time the baby clams, or seeds, are 2 months old and about half the size of a dime, they are ready to be placed in beds on the bottom of the bay. Oysters and clams benefit the environment in that they consume algae produced by chemicals in the water and sequester carbon via their shells.
Cherrystone Aqua-Farms produces its own clams as well as oysters while contracting with another 15 growers (such as Sturgis) to grow as part of a cooperative. Sturgis provides the boat, labor and bay bottom leases. Cherrystone and its cooperative partners split the eventual sale price, whatever the number. "We aren't contracted to a certain price," Ballard says. "That's difficult to do with a two-year grow-out."
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