TCC Oyster Farm Program Booms in Wakulla County

Oyster Farming in Wakulla County 1
Posted at 11:00 PM, Jan 19, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-20 04:46:59-05

PANACEA, FL (WTXL) -- A program offered by Tallahassee Community College is giving students the chance to start their own business in oyster farming.

The program is in such demand that there's a waiting list of six years to join.

TCC's Wakulla Environmental Institute invited Congresswoman Gwen Graham to learn more about the program's development as part of her "Farm Tour."

A group of 10 students harvest one million oysters that are carefully grown in caged baskets.

"They're taking care of the water, they're providing habitat and providing jobs for people," said student Deborah Keller, who works for The Nature Conservancy.

Now in its second year, the program gives each student 100,000 baby oysters -- each the size of a fingernail.

"In 6 to 9 months, they're three inches long and ready to go to market," said executive director Bob Ballard. "In Canada, it takes four years to grow an oyster."

There's only one oyster bay in Wakulla County, and students in the program use what's called the "Australian technique" -- tying baskets above the water, hanging on poles to get the oysters to contract their muscles when the tide rises over the baskets.

When the oysters are cleaned and ready to sell, the program's current rate is 50 cents per oyster.

"This is another opportunity for growing jobs and to allow people to have the most delicious oysters on their plates at night," said Graham.

The program isn't without controversy. A former student sued TCC, claiming the program didn't deliver what it promised.

"It's a student that was not doing what he should have been doing to fulfill his end of the bargain with the class," Ballard said.

Students currently in the program say it inspires them to closely guard their investment -- the oysters themselves.

"I take care of them. I visit them regularly. I consider them my babies," said Keller, who's popularly known among the class as "Oyster Mom."

"Growing a fine oyster that we're growing will be in demand always," Ballard said.

The program is hoping to expand the next class to 25 students to meet the growing demand.