The Cape May Oyster Growers is the other cooperative with which Gef collaborated to assist with start-up. The oyster growers are also using the cooperative model to open up additional marketing channels for their oysters produced through aquaculture techniques.
KDC: Hi Gef, could you tell us a little about your background?
Gef: I grew up in Clifton, New Jersey. Fresh out of College with a biology degree, I was a meat inspector (hot dogs!) for a year and a half. I went back to school on Long Island. where I recieved a Master of Science Degree in Marine and Environmental Science. I joined Rutgers Cooperative Extension in 1978. My summers were spent on the Jersey shore and a marine-related degree was a natural coast for me. Plus I didn’t have to wear a tie and jacket to work.
This began my work with commercial fishermen and shellfish farmers. Over the years, my areas of work have included satellite imagery to catch large fish off shore, seafood marketing, and seafood handling. Parts of my work were actually a throwback to the meat industry – how to safely handle, transport, and market meat (seafood) products. Then I became very interested in aquaculture development. I founded the NJ Aquaculture Association and co-founded the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association. I also served on the Executive Committee of the National Shellfisheries Association. And right now I am President-elect of the US Chapter of the World Aquaculture Society of which I have been a member since 1988.
As I look forward, I am going on a terminal sabbatical in Jan 2016. My time with Rutgers Cooperative Extension is coming to a close. On sabbatical I am going to document shellfish harvesting tools from NC to Maine. Currently there is not an adequate resource on the composition and use of these tools.
KDC: How did you come to be involved with the shellfish cooperatives?
Gef: Back in 1992, I suggested that we needed a hard-clam grower’s cooperative. Clam farmers were just beginning to see the need for packaged clams. Only about 10 years ago a few guys finally got together to do a packaged product that sells thru Shoprite. About that time I worked on a grant to assist with the marketing, and that effort is still going.
I can see that working together is a good thing. I don’t like to work alone and neither do most of the farmers. Cooperatives are mutually beneficial, bringing in many points of view. Heritage came about when I met Peggy at a meeting, and the timing was finally right. KDC was helping to start cooperatives, I saw the opportunity and the rest is history, as the saying goes.
KDC: You were involved in two cooperative startups, right?
Gef: We started with a large group of both oyster and clam producers. The oyster group split off and formed the Cape May Oyster Growers. They organized around their particular vision. Heritage took more time to develop their business vision and organization. Their cooperative followed a year later. When the process started we invited all of the leading clam farmers to the table to evaluate if they wanted to be part of a cooperative. Most felt comfortable with status quo, and decided not to participate. Those left at the table, formed Heritage Shellfish Cooperative. The three growers now in the coop represent about 120 years of work on the water. Two started as kids. That is the “heritage.”
KDC: Describe your role and responsibilities with Heritage and your current position?
Gef: Spiritual advisor. Actually, I am working to help seek out markets. The current packaging was my idea. Clamshell packaging (no pun intended). It is the grab and go concept. Back in the day, mussels were thrown on ice in the display case, and then it evolved to pre-packaged bags for point of purchase. The new clamshell packaging has the cooperative well positioned. Right now we are working with a local distributor to help with the marketing.
KDC: What do you see as future opportunities and trends for Heritage and shellfish?
Gef:The future trend is to expand and move into putting the Heritage product into Community Supported Fisheries (CSF). This helps move local seafood to local consumers. Right now we have three drop off points for our CSF in New Jersey; Beach View CSA in Manahawkin, Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge, and the Rutgers Farmers Market in New Brunswick.
KDC: What do you see as the biggest challenges?
Gef: Not killing each other. Just joking, the group mostly works well together. The biggest challenge is trying to stay out of the commodity market. About 6 years ago we studied the biggest impediments to growing the locally raised hard clam industry New Jersey. The biggest was out of state competition – clams coming in as commodities. The commodity market is still out there, presenting a great competition risk and singing the siren song of “just make the easy sell.”
Also right now, the Heritage guys are product shy. They had a bad year last year, nothing grew. The progress in positioning the branded product has been good, we just need the product. However, early looks show nice growth already this season, so fingers are crossed.
KDC: And what is the view from your doorstep?
Gef: The parking lot behind my building, which might sound boring. Not true. I run the County Extension office and the scene in the parking lot constantly changes. We have master gardener demonstration gardens and plant sales and 4H-ers working with Seeing Eye dogs. My aquaculture gear is over in one corner. It is a constantly changing view.