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Tallahassee's Oyster Mom fights to keep oyster market afloat during COVID-19 pandemic

Posted at 7:19 PM, Apr 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-03 19:19:55-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) — Many businesses are suffering from impacts of the coronavirus. Sales are also down across the board in agriculture.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Deborah Keller, the Oyster Mom, was well on her way to building a solid business.

Farmers on land and sea are suffering from impacts of the coronavirus. Even Keller says she forced to watch her sales get smaller and smaller.

Sales are down across the board, but when times are tough there's a lot to be said about sticking together.

Now, Keller is teaming up with others in the oyster market to make sure they all survive this.

"All of our wholesale outlets are closed," said Keller. "Every restaurant where people used to go out and enjoy our oysters is not enjoying them anymore. So I've been really grateful to people here in Tallahassee who have really increased some of their buying."

Keller says the oyster business is a lot like land farming, whether you get sales or not, you're still spending money.

"You've got to harvest your product when it's ready, and so we don't really have a downtime," said Keller. "It's not like the wild oyster, where we could just let it sit out there in the Gulf of Mexico. If we don't harvest, then we have to buy a new equipment. We have expenses and we have to take care of those oysters."

"There were a lot of people doing this week-to-week and their paychecks just halted," said Colin Slemkewicz, an oyster distributor. "So it's really important to come together."

Slemkewicz and Keller are doing what they can to rally behind others in the oyster business.

"I am literally trying to support many of the farmers that are out there by buying oysters from other farmers," Keller said. "So I sell my own oysters that I raise, and I also then talk to other people who are raising oysters, and bring them in, and sell for them."

Doing all she can to help others, Keller says, "That's what mom's do!"

But this plan is far from a fix as the demand for oysters stays down and businesses look for ways to make it through.

"Since restaurants are closed, oysters aren't really a to-go food," Slemkewicz explained.

Right now, Keller says she's cutting prices in hopes of making a sustainable income.

Breaking into the oyster business isn't cheap either.

The Department of Natural Resources says, in 2014 the start-up for an oyster farm cost about $60,000 per acre. With inflation, that's now even more.

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