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Walrus & Carpenter Oyster Farm

The Challenge

To distribute oysters which have been grown with ecologically sound methods to local New England restaurants

The challenges which Walrus & Carpenter handles are twofold—one ecological and one social. The bay waters which surround settled coastal areas are often oversaturated with nitrogen as a result of agricultural runoff and other forms of human-generated effluent. Many popular forms of seafood are difficult to grow sustainably, and New England consumers have limited access to seafood options which are raised, harvested, and shipped using environmentally sound practices. Less than 5% of food consumed in Rhode Island is produced locally, and seafood has the potential to be one of the areas in which this disconnect can be most effectively addressed.

The Approach

Walrus & Carpenter takes a holistic approach to maintaining a sustainable oyster aquaculture program, which serves the dual purpose of both capturing excess nitrogen from effluent around the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge and providing locally raised, top-quality oysters to local New England businesses and consumers. Part of what originally attracted Jules Opton-Himmel, the founder of Walrus & Carpenter, to oyster aquaculture was its disposition towards sustainable farming methods. Oysters release negligible amounts of carbon dioxide or methane compared to other protein sources, and significantly reduced amounts of nitrous oxide. Their role in eating phytoplankton helps restore biodiversity in the bay waters in which they are farmed.

After initial growth of 50-100% per year, W&C made the conscious decision to keep sales flat for several years in order to improve the quality of the crop by developing and refining best practices rather than focusing on quantitative expansion in crops or markets. Each of these lines of effort ultimately makes W&C more sustainable both in regard to its labor and management and its impact on the environment.

In the past few weeks, Walrus & Carpenter has adjusted their business model in response to the challenges posed by COVID-19. They, in partnership with Pat’s Pastured as well as several other local Rhode Island producers, have pooled their collective distribution resources in order to roll out a new direct-to-consumer sales initiative.

By The Numbers

  • Oysters shipped per week to restaurants during the busy season: 20,000
  • Customers served in a week through collaborative direct-to-consumer effort with Pat’s Pastured: 200
  • Percent greenhouse gas impact of oyster aquaculture in comparison to land-based protein sources: 0.5
  • Maximum delivery distance — chosen in order to minimize carbon impact from cooling and distribution: 150

Preserve and Grow Fisheries Industries

Walrus & Carpenter’s oyster farms positively impact Rhode Island bay waters and increase the sustainable seafood options available to New Englanders.

Program Description

With two farm sites and four year-round employees, Walrus & Carpenter has earned its place as a significant source of sustainable Rhode Island oysters.

Walrus & Carpenter employs four year-round workers to manage their two locations in Ninigret Pond and Dutch Harbor. Four additional seasonal employees are hired every spring to help with harvesting and distribution. Given the disruption this season with COVID-19, however, the farm is working with a skeleton crew. The core crew, all longtime employees, is collaboratively allocating labor and resources in order to maintain their crops without the full seasonal crew.

The crew actively seeks out best practices to employ on their farm, sometimes through in-house innovation and sometimes by pooling knowledge with others in the industry. Rather than taking the industry standard approach of starting the cultures with a net volume of oyster seed and thinning out the crop as they grow, Walrus & Carpenter starts each cage with only 200 oysters. This has so far halved oyster mortality rates and improved the net quality of each crop. The nature of open ocean aquaculture renders pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics functionally useless—so Walrus & Carpenter’s oysters are grown without any chemical additives.

Walrus & Carpenter’s new direct-to-consumer efforts are still in their early stages of development, but they are active on two fronts: collaborating with Pat’s Pastured to distribute products in cooperation with a variety of other local producers, and independently operating a mail-order oyster program. Before those launches, they had one primary direct-to-consumer effort: together with other local RI producers, Walrus & Carpenter hosts annual dinners put together with 100% local food on location by Ninigret Pond in Charlestown, Rhode Island. The tour portion of these dinners educates consumers on the logistics, experience, and ecology of running an oyster farm, and the dinners themselves highlight the wealth of environmentally conscious Rhode Island food options which are available to consumers.

Future Plans

Walrus & Carpenter seeks to become a carbon neutral company by 2024, although that timeline will likely adjust due to the effects of COVID-19 and the loss of much of the 2020 season’s income. Much of Walrus & Carpenter’s carbon impact currently comes from their function as a distribution business, including cold storage and transportation. In order to address this, Walrus & Carpenter is looking into on-site means of offsetting carbon costs, as well as adopting an alternative material to Styrofoam for the purpose of packing and insulating their products when shipping direct-to-consumers.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has significantly altered both Walrus & Carpenter’s current business practices and the potential trajectory of their business, although it is far too early to tell exactly how those shifts will manifest. As well as altering Walrus & Carpenter’s timeline for developing a carbon-neutral business model, the pandemic has made clear the value of maintaining multiple revenue streams in the event that one destabilizes. In that vein, Walrus & Carpenter is exploring tentative plans to diversify into off-season products, which would both create more non-seasonal employment positions and provide the company a revenue stream outside restaurant and direct-to-consumer oyster sales.

This Rhode Island Story was prepared by Alexandra McClintock.