Cedar Key's clam farmers feel squeezed out


Johnathan Miller, of Cedar Key Gulf Coast Golds, harvests clams from the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday in Cedar Key.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, June 20, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 19, 2013 at 7:53 p.m.

CEDAR KEY — When Anna Hodges began harvesting clams in 1994, she earned 9 cents a clam. Now she gets 7 cents, but over half of what she and her husband, Mike — owners of Hodges Seafood — produce goes unsold because they say the market is saturated.

The result?

"We have (clam) farmers losing homes. We have clams out there dying," Anna said on Tuesday afternoon, from their clam boat in Cedar Key that cut through waters divvied up by barnacled poles — marking off the "leases," or plots of sea bottom where the clams are grown.

Only a couple of farmers stood working in shoulder-high water, an image reflecting the reality of the town's threatened livelihood — at least if you're a small clam farmer, which many people in this seaside hamlet are.

The farmers oppose state government's proposal to expand leases, which they say would increase clam production and concentrate it in the hands of local wholesaler Clamtastic Seafood Inc., whose production of clams the farmers contend has already caused clam prices to plummet.

"This lease expansion would throw us over the edge," said Mike Hodges, 55, who has been farming clams for 19 years. These days he spends only one day a week on the boat harvesting clams. He wishes it was more. "The rest of the time I spend patching nets," he said, adding that this was work he once hired out.

The husband-wife duo said the only reason they've been able to stay afloat is because they have each other.

"It's just us now," Mike said. "We live simply, so we've been able to hold on."

"It's like weathering a storm," he said.

A family tradition

Hodges comes from a family six generations deep into making their money on the water.

The main bridge in Cedar Key is named after Hodge's grandfather, the late W. Randolph "Gene" Hodges, a commercial fisherman who became the first director of the Florida Department of Natural Resources (what is now the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) as well as a longtime state senator.

Anna, too, comes from a family of fishermen. That tradition changed in 1994, though, when the state banned net fishing over concerns that it was killing off fish and other sea mammals such as turtles and dolphins.

Since commercial fishing had been the livelihood of most people in Cedar Key, the government provided a training program in clam farming for those who were relying on fishing for a living.

Anna went through that program. "This was created so people on the waterfront could live," she said, adding that it entitled people to acquire two 2-acre plots.

"The state recognized back then that we had to have a limit," she said. "We didn't need Campbell's Soup moving in here."

Under the state's currently proposed expansion, individual farmers could acquire an additional 5 acres, but wholesalers like Clamtastic, which are comprised of more than one owner, can pool their acres together. Mike said the effects on small farmers "feels like the ban on net fishing all over again. These guys want to expand and call it fair business."

The Hodges just created a Facebook page called "Support the Small Clam Farmers of Cedar Key," which in two weeks has more than 700 followers. They started a petition this week asking the government to not expand leases.

Lease expansion

The issue of lease expansion emerged a few years ago after small farmers complained that wholesalers were farming off-lease, in unauthorized areas, said Kal Knickerbocker, the acting director of the division of aquaculture at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

"We were getting a bunch of complaints that people were planting outside of lease area, and that doesn't surprise me because the industry was growing," Knickerbocker said.

Wholesalers set up shop in Cedar Key in the late '90s, and most of them also started farming themselves in addition to buying from the small farmers. Now there are about eight or nine wholesalers in the area.

"In order to fill orders, they needed a consistent supply of quality product, and they weren't necessarily getting that by working with the little guys, who were inconsistent," Knickerbocker said.

"The industry is evolving: We've seen it in other areas … a lot of times the small guy gets squeezed because it takes large volume to keep the pipeline full. The small guys who don't want to get involved in the marketing of their product … they've got a real difficult road to go. To get 12 cents a clam and have buyers waiting for you at the ramp … those days are gone," Knickerbocker continued.

He said that the plight of the small clam farmer reminds him of the ornamental fishing industry, which for years was operated by small mom 'n' pop operations in Polk and Hillsborough counties. When big distributors like PetSmart started to move in, the smaller operations either adapted or they went out of business. "Unfortunately that happens," Knickerbocker said. "That's just capitalism."

Knickerbocker said this summer he will come up with official recommendations on lease expansion.

At an impassioned meeting last week in Cedar Key that he presided over, small farmers shot down the idea of lease expansion unanimously. One said that his annual earnings went from $170,000 to $30,000. They said they harvested 10 bushels for $1,200 per week 10 years ago; now they say they earn half that.

Meanwhile, clams are dying on leases that naturally became unproductive because of sea bottom that is too hard or too soft.

To clarify the state's original proposal, Knickerbocker said those leases won't actually be replaced.

"When we say we're going to trade unproductive leases for new sites, that's putting new bottom into production," he explained. "At the end of the day, it's expansion."

Clamtastic: an expanding operation

For Chris Topping, the founding owner of Clamtastic, the prospect of expanding his business is exciting. He has already applied for new leases.

"I'm not trying to take their business," Topping said of small farmers. His operation is housed in a couple of warehouses off a gravel road by the baseball field in Cedar Key.

"I'm 34, not 60," he continued. "I see the future of this industry, and (most small farmers) are happy where they are."

Topping said he mostly wants to expand into the frozen clam industry, adding that many of his clients are chefs and would prefer a frozen product to a fresh one.

Topping recently applied for a USDA rural development grant to develop the domestic frozen market, and that project would create three more jobs, he said.

Clamtastic already employs 25 people, to help with an operation that is involved with every stage of clam production from the hatchery to the table.

Topping was in 10th grade when the ban on net fishing was introduced. As a child he'd wanted to be a marine biologist, but he got into the clamming industry shortly after high school.

"I liked Cedar Key, and it was the only thing to do here," said Topping, whose father was a mechanic and whose wife, Diana Beckham, comes from a long line of local commercial fishermen and women.

After clam farming for many years, Topping started Clamtastic in 2001.

"I took the initiative and worked 24/7, from daylight to dark," said Topping, who, clad in rubber overalls, had just finished "tumbling" clams — the first stage in cleaning them for sale.

He said he has a direct hand in his business — from planting seed to driving trucks full of clams to his clients.

"That's what you've got to do," Topping said.

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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