Merrior

It’s a bit stunning to me that VALOR III is more than half way through our leadership development program. Although I’ve found the time commitment challenging at times, I’m not looking forward to the day that it ends. I continue to get a great deal from each session: new information on Virginia’s diverse agricultural industry, fresh insights into my leadership strengths and where I could use improvement, new connections to industry leaders and experts, and an ever deepening appreciation for my VALOR colleagues.

Our seventh of twelve sessions last weekend drove home again the once-in-a-lifetime gift that VALOR is. I’ve been looking forward to our session in the Northern Neck for awhile for several reasons. The first is that there’s a solid contingent of farmers growing fresh produce for farmers markets in the metro DC area. The second reason is that seafood and fisheries represent a huge gap in my knowledge about local and regional food. Thanks to our generous and knowledgeable hosts at Rappahanock Oyster Co, Omega Protein, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, I feel like I’ve got a great grasp on some of the key fundamentals now.

Merrior is both the name of Rappahanock Oyster Co’s delightful-looking tasting room at their Topping, VA location, and a term of art that seems to be gaining traction in the oyster industry. According to one industry group

“as terroir is used to describe wine, merroir refers to flavours an oyster may possess as a result of the marine environment in which it was grown. Merroir may impart the tastes of kelp or other seaweed, mineral or metallic flavors. Oysters of the same species can vary considerably in flavour depending upon where they are grown.

Merrior at Rappahanock Oyster Co (above), Touring the facility with Patrick Oliver – Director of Farms (top right), Oysters harvested and ready to go (bottom right)

Rappahanock Oyster Co actually raises oysters in three different locations in VA; offering its customers in the region and beyond a variety of experiences for the palate. You can see pictures from our visit on my Instagram account and the VALOR account. And you can sample their delicious oysters at their restaurants in Topping, Richmond, and in Washington, D.C.

Although there was no talk of merrior at Omega Protein, our visit to another long-standing business in the Northern Neck was a fascinating education on how this company, built upon the Atlantic Menhaden fishery, has continued to evolve and thrive for well over 100 years. Omega Protein is a key employer in the region. Some of its employees harvesting and processing menhaden fish oil – for a range of consumer products and animal feed – do so as part of the second or third generation of their family to be employed by the company. I found the chance to see a video of what it’s like to fish for Menhaden with one of their fleet and crew to be a particularly enlightening introduction to the facility and its operations.

We got up close with Menhaden on our unforgettable visit to Port Isobel with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). Kids and adults alike, who get to set crab cages with CBF’s knowledgeable staff, are invited to bait the cages with this oily fish that can withstand the Bay’s currents and attract its iconic blue crabs. I won’t spoil exactly how baiting the cages happens if you’ve not had a chance to try it yourself yet.

Checking an oyster haul with CBF staff (above left) and harvesting blue crab at Port Isobel (right).

I don’t know how to adequately sum up our 24 hours with CBF in just a few paragraphs but I believe their efforts to bring community members, students, decision makers, farmers, and other leaders close to “the resource” – the Chesapeake Bay – is indeed the most effective way to share all that it has to offer and to engender a commitment to working to improve its health.

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Unforgettable sunrise on the beach at Port Isobel.

On its 50th Anniversary, CBF announced that in 2016, the health of the Bay is demonstrably improving. It received a C- in its 2016 State of the Bay report — the highest grade since CBF issued the first State of the Bay measure 18 years ago. Among many other things, this means more healthy, high quality waterways feeding into the Bay and increasing opportunities to develop that VA oyster merrior.

The staff we spoke with credited partnerships with advocates and farmers to improve cover cropping, fence cattle out of streams, plant riparian buffers, and more, as one reason for the improved health of the Bay. We learned about CBF’s broad partnerships in communities like the Shenandoah Valley to support livestock farmers by providing technical assistance and connecting them with cost-share programs to reduce nutrient runoff from their operations. CBF shared several examples of how these changes improved farm operations’ profitability. They shared farmer stories about how the introduction of improved pasture management techniques yielded more on-farm animal nutrition, saving farmers money that would otherwise be spent to purchase hay.

Despite the positive progress that has been made to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay, a C- is not a grade that most of us are content with. The organization I consult with has a long standing policy committee on the Chesapeake Bay. I know in the days ahead I’ll be exploring how the Regional Food Systems Program I’m working might further support this committee, and incorporate these and other lessons from VALOR.

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