By Cassie Bable, Public Affairs Specialist, FSA Office of External Affairs
Beginning farmer Jules Opton-Himmel left his New York desk job to start his oyster operation, Walrus and Carpenter Oysters. The business venture started seven years ago and today, Opton-Himmel’s oysters have secured a spot on local restaurant menus across Rhode Island.
Opton-Himmel started with a 1,000 square-foot lease permit on Ninigret Pond, a coastal lagoon, in southern Rhode Island. As the business grew, he worked to expand his operation such that his lease permit now includes six acres which produce from 300,000 to 500,000 oysters each year.
As Opton-Himmel’s operation grew, he needed to buy more equipment to keep up with production. He visited the Washington County Farm Service Agency (FSA) office and worked with a farm loan specialist to secure a $35,000 USDA microloan to purchase more gear, including a raft, tumbler and upweller system used to grow oysters from seed.
“The oyster market is strong and local demand has grown significantly,” said Opton-Himmel. “The loan helped me add more mechanization to daily processes.”
FSA microloans allow new, small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers to apply for up to $50,000 using a simplified application process. The microloans can be used for farm ownership expenses, such as real estate, equipment and buildings, and for farm operating expenses, such as seed, fertilizer, utilities, rent and living costs.
Since the launch of the microloan in 2013, USDA has financed more than 18,000 producers in all 50 states. About 70 percent of the loans were made to new farmers like Opton-Himmel who sell their products locally.
Opton-Himmel created his own markets by setting up appointments with chefs at local restaurants to let them sample his products. Today, Walrus and Carpenter Oysters are sold to 40 local restaurants in Rhode Island and New York City.
Around the holidays, consumers can buy oysters directly from Walrus and Carpenter Oysters through a community supported agriculture (CSA) program with local pick-ups in Rhode Island and New York. CSA programs allow members to purchase a share from the farmer and receive part of the anticipated harvest in return.
To support the agritourism industry, each summer Opton-Himmel hosts an outdoor dinner series that includes a farm tour, in-the-water raw-bar and multi-course dinner prepared by local celebrity chefs. According to Opton-Himmel, the dinner series last summer sold out in less than four minutes. Potential dinner guests can expect to see two more dining opportunities added to the series this summer.
The shellfish industry in Rhode Island is growing and Opton-Himmel plans to grow with it. He wants to pick up more leases and is expanding his product line to include sugar kelp and value-added products such as salad packages. This year, consumers can look forward to seeing a mail order option on the webpage.
As consumer demand for local products rises, U.S. farmers and ranchers like Opton-Himmel are working to meet the demand by creating local markets for their products and USDA is working hard to introduce these family farmers and ranchers to the American consumer.
Between 2009 and 2015, USDA invested over $1 billion in more than 40,000 local and regional food businesses and infrastructure projects.
For more information about local food and markets visit http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/knowyourfarmer?navid=kyf-kyf.