Did you know Virginia is the nation’s third-largest seafood producer? Virginia watermen harvest more than 50 commercially valuable species of seafood, and the state ranks first in the nation for the production of hard shell clams.
“Hard shell clams is a very valuable industry to the Commonwealth of Virginia,” says Mike Hutt, executive director of the Virginia Marine Products Board. Hutt says the industry planted 476 million clams in Virginia in 2016 and contributed $38.1 million to the state’s economy. He estimates 2017 figures, when final, will show a 10 percent increase to 523 million clams planted.
Hard shell clams are one of the most profitable seafood species for Virginia, ranking fifth behind sea scallops, oysters, blue crabs and menhaden. Clams are harvested and shipped daily from Virginia to buyers all over the nation, who enjoy the chewy, slightly salty clams in chowders, fritters and stuffing as well as steamed or in clambakes. They are also eaten raw and on the half-shell.
H.M. Terry Co. Inc.
H.M. Terry Co. Inc. in Willis Wharf is one of the largest hard shell clam producers in the country. Originally formed in 1903 as an oyster-shucking company, H.M. Terry Co. has adapted over the years to survive and thrive in an ever-changing economy.
“H.M. Terry Co. remained an oyster-shucking company until the early 1980s, when there was a major oyster die-off in Virginia and many old oyster companies went out of business,” says Heather Lusk, vice president at H.M. Terry Co. “At the time, we were already experimenting with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science on hard shell clam grow-out, so we decided to take the next steps to go into the clam business. The industry has grown exponentially since then, and we’ve worked hard to stay on top of the market and growing trends.”
Clam Farming 101
Though many people don’t think of clams when they think of agriculture, clam farming is a lot like traditional farming in many ways.
“The main difference is we use boats instead of tractors,” Lusk says. “We spawn clam ‘seed’ in our hatchery and take it through our nursery during the spring and summer. Then we plant the seed in beds that are laid out in rows on various pieces of submerged bottom and tidal flats that we lease from the Commonwealth.”
When the clams are ready to harvest, crews go out in boats with baskets and hydraulic rakes to collect them.
“We have different growing areas depending on the size of the clam, and we practice crop rotation to help keep our ground productive,” Lusk explains.
H.M. Terry Co. ships clams to wholesalers and grocery chains that then sell them to restaurants, seafood markets and individual consumers. They end up all over the country, from New York to Los Angeles and a host of places in between.
Virginia’s fertile waters and healthy environment are ideal for raising shellfish, and the industry is uniquely sustainable by nature.
“Since shellfish are filter-feeders, they are constantly cleaning the water as they eat, so we get to say we are cleaning the water as we grow,” Lusk says. “Also, we get to do our jobs on the water, so the view from the office is pretty spectacular.”
Hutt agrees. “With all these clams in production,” he says, “it’s a win-win for our environment and the health and quality of Virginia waters.”