Virginia has bet big on oysters. But amid the pandemic, no one’s buying them.

Virginia has bet big on oysters. But amid the pandemic, no one’s buying them.
The oysters they’ve raised are piling up, but there’s nowhere for them to go. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

2020 was supposed to be Rogue Oysters’ year.

The four-year-old enterprise founded by husband-wife duo Taryn Brice-Rowland and Aaron Rowland in the Northern Neck community of Lancaster had already taken a hit early in its life when record-breaking rains swept through Virginia in 2018, diluting the salty waters where the bivalve thrives and wiping out that year’s crop.

But the pair persisted, beginning again the laborious two-year process of raising oysters from seed to shell. They started selling to other oyster businesses that supplied restaurants through the wholesale market and laid plans to break into direct restaurant sales themselves. This year they finally hired their first employee, with a planned start date in April.

Then the new coronavirus hit.

“Our orders basically stopped in early March,” said Brice-Rowland. Now, she said, “We have 300,000 oysters in the water right now that may not ever find a home we intended for them. We’ll have to find a way to get rid of them.”

Rogue Oysters isn’t alone in that predicament. All up and down the coasts and waterways of Virginia, where John Smith once reported the oysters “lay as thick as stones,” the farmers who cultivate this prized marine resource are faced with a tough predicament. The oysters they’ve raised are piling up, but there’s nowhere for them to go.

“Whereas you can kind of mothball a restaurant … the farm is actually a living thing,” said Travis Croxton, co-owner of Rappahannock Oyster Company, which operates a facility in Topping as well as restaurants in Virginia, Washington, D.C., Charleston and Los Angeles. “They’re animals that are growing.”

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