“Along the Florida Gulf Coast, oysters are part of the culture, part of everyday life,” says Josh Neese, founder and director of the Florida Oyster Trading Company.
Based in Pensacola, Florida, Neese founded the company in April 2020, determined to address one fundamental challenge facing oyster farmers in Florida: reliable access to local seed.
Since then, he has built the business up to become the largest leaseholder in the State of Florida, with the goal of supplying local growers with high quality, Florida-bred and grown oyster seed. The next step on that journey is to scale up by expanding the company’s patent-pending micro-hatchery production model, supported by an ongoing capital raise.
“We currently have three lease sites we’re building out. At the first one, as we speak, we have seed in the water. Actually, I’ll be taking my nice shirt off here very soon and going into the lab and draining down a few larval tanks,” Neese says.
“Oyster aquaculture kept drawing me back”
Hands-on and down to earth, Neese’s enthusiasm for oyster aquaculture shines through. He didn’t always work in the sector, but it’s impossible to imagine doing anything else now, he says.
“I started out in sales welding supply, and moved into operations management. I was a regional operations manager for several years.” However, Neese knew he wanted to change tack in his career. “It just wasn’t a passion of mine. That’s something that’s important to me, that I care about what I’m doing, and that my work has an effect on the immediate world, or as much impact as possible.”
Neese’s love of the outdoors and the natural world led him back to university studies, this time in biological science research.
“I didn’t have much of an idea of what aquaculture was when I started,” he recalls. “I got into a great graduate lab here in Pensacola at the University of West Florida. My professor was amazing, and it was him who introduced me into aquaculture.”
Neese’s research initially focused on fisheries ecology offshore, but he became fascinated with aquaculture towards the end of his masters, landing a job as a fisheries biologist with the State of Louisiana.
“That job introduced me to oyster aquaculture. And loved it – just the thought of taking a few oyster seeds and making millions of larvae just fascinated me, so I really hung on to that.”
Neese managed a finfish hatchery for the State of Alabama, before joining the Pensacola Bay Oyster Company as Vice President of operations. “Oyster aquaculture just kept drawing me back. Working with oysters is a different process than with finfish, it’s a little more straightforward, and I loved how the job melded the sales and the operations management experience from my former life with biology and science. It just clicked.”
When the COVID19 pandemic hit, operations at his employer slowed, and gave Neese pause for thought. “I took it as an opportunity to go out on my own. And having been in the trenches and immersed in the industry here on the Gulf, you get to know the people, you get to know your fellow farmers. You talk with them, you learn their struggles and you see first-hand what could be done differently.”
Opening the bottlenecks to support oyster aquaculture in Florida and beyond
“That’s where the Florida Oyster Trading Company came from: answering industry issues, the bottlenecks, gaps, roadblocks,” he says.
Neese explains that the last two years have been spent establishing and building up the company, including a small seed funding round during the spring of 2021. “That funded our very first micro hatchery, which is now in patent pending status,” he says.
“Since establishing, we’ve been doing a good deal of R&D, taking academic models and adapting them to the commercial world. One thing that I’ve noticed, having been at the state level and having collaborated with both academia and the commercial sector, is that it’s not always apples to apples,” he says.
“You have Tier 1 research institutes with millions of dollars of endowments and beachfront property with the best water quality and army of interns. And the private sector doesn’t really have those resources at hand. So there there’s a little bit of a disconnect between theory and practice. That may be how you should do oyster aquaculture in theory, but is it practical, feasible and realistic?”
“A grower may be able to secure seed one year, but their question is, are we going to be able to get that seed next year? …THERE’S SO MUCH UNCERTAINTY.”– Josh Neese
“There’s panic within the commercial industry in some places. A grower may be able to secure seed one year, but their question is, are we going to be able to get that seed next year? Because now we’ve got to hire people to work the lease. There’s so much uncertainty. It’s not uncommon for me to get a phone call or a text at 6.30 on a Sunday morning asking if I have seed available. That’s one of the things we’re looking to address.”
“I say it’s like trying to rescue a cruise ship that’s sinking, but you’re only in a lifeboat yourself. If we’re struggling to stay afloat, it’s hard to help others at the same time. So, our primary focus is getting the business launched, and beginning the scaling process so we can assist other local growers to not only just survive but to hopefully flourish and operate at the level they want.”
“The largest leaseholder in the state of Florida”
“With the micro hatchery, the Florida Oyster Trading Company’s approach is really a stripped-down version of these resources. Instead of, pardon the pun, putting all your eggs in one basket, we’re breaking it down to smaller modular production sites.”
“If there’s only one or two seed production sites, you’re at more risk versus multiple, smaller production sites that are able to better serve the industry. And that’s our approach. We are a multi-site vertically integrated production company, using the technology that we’ve developed to mass-produce different brands of oysters.”
“We’re the largest leaseholder in the state of Florida. We have the most production capacity right now than anyone that I can think of. Right now, we’re establishing our first site initial production and a concurrent capital raise to support that build out.”
“We’re starting out with three. But as soon as we establish those, we are looking to continue to scale more sites, more production.”
Creating “blue opportunity” for producers, workers, communities and consumers
Neese notes that the Florida Oyster Trading Company also has wider goals: to make an impact in the wider Florida community.
“The blue economy is what everyone’s talking about right now. But we look at it more as blue opportunity. We want to create jobs and we want to bolster that supply chain. Not just on the production aspect, but for the supply to consumers and all the ripple effects that occur from there.”
“The more boats we have on the water, the more mechanics are needed. The more oysters we have out in the Bay that are supplanting the global loss of oysters in the natural environment, the more we are improving the water quality of the ecosystem, through water filtration, carbon removal, and nitrogen sequestration.”
“I see oyster aquaculture as this vehicle to touch so many different areas and improve the local community”– Josh Neese
“So, I don’t only look at aquaculture as an opportunity to provide food, to provide jobs, to provide business opportunities for others. I see oyster aquaculture as this vehicle to touch so many different areas and improve the local community – whether that’s financially, environmentally, or even socially, in terms of social justice.”
This also includes reaching out to local communities to educate and enable a new generation to participate in oyster aquaculture, Neese says.
“Here on the Gulf Coast, you look at the oyster aquaculture industry and it is primarily a bunch of white dudes. But then on the other side, people are bemoaning the fact that they can’t find labor, no one wants to work in oyster aquaculture. Well, have we engaged all communities? Have we reached out, have we actively approached people like me, who may not even have a clue what oyster aquaculture is? How can we say they don’t want to do it if they don’t even know what the industry is?”
“We’re working in a very close partnership with Florida Sea Grant, University of Florida, the land grant school for our state, developing programs to reach these underserved communities that may be interested in getting involved with aquaculture – whether that be through training, or putting them in touch with vendors, whatever they need,” he says.
“We want to grow the industry, not just by growing more oysters but by providing that opportunity for more people to come in and grow those oysters.”
“We don’t want to be a soulless corporation. We don’t want to be just oyster seed in, money out. Anyone can do that, but we want to create impact and we want to leave the world better than before.”
Aquaculture in Florida and the US – what’s happening now and in the future?
In contact with both small producers and big research institutions, Neese has a unique perspective on Florida’s bivalve aquaculture sector. How does he see the outlook for oyster farmers in the State, and beyond?
“I think that Florida is doing wonderful. Last I looked at the statistics, there were somewhere in the ballpark of 130 oyster and clam growers. So, it’s pretty robust. Florida has more growers and more acreage than the rest of the Gulf of Mexico combined. And we’re continually adding more growers, so the demand for oyster seed is only going to increase.”
“We need more seed suppliers – but not necessarily a $5,000,000 mecca of production in one place. But what’s wrong with stripped-down, $30,000 facilities that can produce a couple million seeds a year and satisfy a local community? We see our model as replicable and scalable. If we outgrow our footprint, it’s a matter of, OK, let’s add a few more tanks and we’re able to satisfy that need.”
Florida has more growers and more acreage than the rest of the Gulf of Mexico combined. And we’re continually adding more growers, so the demand for oyster seed is only going to increase.– Josh Neese
Neese says he hesitates to use the word “disruptive” to describe his company, but his approach is definitely innovative, with the potential to become a game-changer for smaller growers – and not only in Florida. Neese says that the company is considering franchising their model to other areas, so that more growers around the whole of the U.S. can have access to reliable, high-quality and locally grown oyster seed all year round.
“All these things that we spoke about in the production supply chain – they’re not isolated to just Florida or the Gulf Coast. You often hear folks say, ‘Be prepared to self-rescue. No one’s coming.’ I think that’s the approach a lot of people need to take at this point. Yeah, there’s money out there, but for individuals like myself and fellow growers, the likelihood of accessing a $20 million grant to grow a business or co-op is slim to none, because you’re competing with these Tier 1 Research institutes with 50-60% in direct costs.”
“We’re going to go and do our own thing,” he says.
Restoring oysters as a way of life in Florida’s Gulf Coast
Neese’s company has also purchased acreage in Apalachicola – an area which, Neese says, once produced up to 20% of the oysters consumed in the US.
“Unfortunately, the wild oysters are about midway through a five-year moratorium because the wild populations crashed. That way of life in Florida is at risk.”
“That’s one reason we’re interested in restoration as well. Building and managing oyster reefs is something on our road map,” he says.
“I remember growing up, being able to sit at a raw oyster bar, watching the Sunday football and, as I got older, having a beer as well. I wasn’t even involved in the fishery at that point in time, and I can’t imagine if it was your livelihood, how ingrained it must be in your family’s life.”
“Being able to bring that way of life back is very much at the heart of what we are doing”– Josh Neese
“It’s amazing to think about how the consumption of oysters has evolved in the US, from the indigenous folks here that were here long before any of us, that we know used oysters as a food source because of the shell middens they left behind, to the early 20th century where oysters were a penny from street vendors in New York. And now, oysters are a white tablecloth product.”
“I don’t think we’ll ever get back to penny oysters ever again. Of course, it would probably disrupt my whole business model if we did!” Neese says with a smile. “But you know, so many people come to Florida on vacation, and for these people to spend their time and money here, and not to be able to enjoy authentic Florida oysters, to me is a travesty.”
“When I got into the commercial industry, I started noticing things like how many driveways are filled with oyster shell or how many raw bars there actually are in a neighborhood. Being able to bring that way of life back is very much at the heart of what we are doing.”