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State of the South 2014: Northern Neck,VA

State of the South 2014: Northern Neck,VA

There used to be so many oysters in Chesapeake Bay that ships would run aground on reefs piled high with them. By the turn of the 20th century, oystermen were harvesting 20 million bushels a year, delivered by steamship and rail to cities up and down the East Coast. But a century later, the oyster reefs have disappeared. A combination of overfishing, pollution, and disease wiped out the bay’s oyster crop. Harvests in Virginia and Maryland total in the tens of thousands of bushels, no longer the tens of millions. An entire industry was nearly destroyed.

An effort is now under way to rebuild the bay’s oyster population by reducing pollution, creating oyster sanctuaries, and restoring reefs. And one company in the Northern Neck peninsula of Virginia is doing it box-by-box—cultivating native oysters in wire boxes and floating them in the bay - creating a new supply and market for varieties of the disappearing Crassostrea virginica. It is sowing the seeds (or spat, as oyster larvae are called) for what is hoped is part of an economic revival on the Northern Neck.

The company is the Rappahannock Oyster Co., run by two cousins who are the grandchildren of oystermen. There’s perhaps no better place to enjoy their oysters than Merroir, a restaurant they own in the tiny village of Topping, Va., overlooking the Rappahannock River. We stopped there for lunch while reporting on the Northern Neck, a beautiful and isolated peninsula between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers, for our State of the South 2014 report.

At bayside tables shaded by umbrellas, Merroir serves the three trademarked varieties of oysters they raise--Rappahannocks (sweet), Stringrays (mild), and Olde Salts (briny)—along with a small plates menu that includes crabcakes, a variety of oyster dishes, and a delicious shucked corn and crab soup. (They all taste even better served with Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout, brewed with the company’s oyster juice by the Flying Dog Brewery in nearby Fredericksburg.) The restaurant is luring patrons from as far away as Richmond and Washington, D.C., who want to go to the seaside source and not just to the restaurants the company owns in those two cities. And it serves a growing community of wealthy retirees who are building multi-million-dollar homes on the bay.

Merroir and the Rappahannock Oyster Co. are emblematic of two areas of economic development— aquaculture and tourism— that folks on the Northern Neck are hoping will offset the decline of the peninsula’s seafood, agriculture, and canning industries. But they have a long way to go. Word is that the Rappahannock Oyster Co., which ships oysters to top New York restaurants, can sell as many as they can raise, but raising oysters isn’t labor intensive yet. The hope is that with improved science instruction at local schools, students will be better prepared for college and, perhaps, the nearby Virginia Institute for Marine Science, where they can build careers and new businesses in aquaculture.

In the meantime, as in so many rural places with weak economies, young and working age people are leaving the Northern Neck to find jobs. A repeated concern we heard was about a pronounced population drop of people between 20 and 55 years old detected between the 2000 and 2010 Censuses, and an average age around 54, compared to a statewide average of 37.5.

We talked to business, community, foundation, and education leaders—and young people—who know they have a big challenge ahead. In addition to demographic, political, and geographic divides across four counties, there’s also a racial one in an area of deep Colonial history that’s the birthplace of both George Washington and Robert E. Lee. The community is trying to addressing its poverty-related problems with youth programs, an expanded community college, and an initiative called “Visions” that has among its goals to bring the community together to understand the problems that poverty causes and to solve them through education, workforce readiness, and economic growth.

Leaders in Northern Neck recognize that oyster cultivation and destination restaurants like Merroir are not enough. But, like replenishing the oyster population in Chesapeake Bay, they know you have to start by rebuilding the foundational reefs on which they grow. 

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