Oyster farmer tries to keep struggling company afloat amid virus outbreak

Posted at 1:10 PM, Apr 07, 2020

There is hardly a soul in sight off the New England coastline. Only the Coast Guard and Jim Markow’s fishing boat occupy these waters, which are typically bustling with activity.

Here in Noank, Connecticut, the headwaters of the Atlantic Ocean come crashing into the Mystic River. The combination of saltwater and fresh water creates what most in this coastal community say are some of the best oysters in the world.

But the coronavirus outbreak is now threatening a way of life that’s been a part of this community for generations. It’s an epidemic impacting both land and sea.

“We were doing great business, thinking we were on the top of the pile. Now, we’re at the bottom. We’ve got nothing, it was like someone just flipped a switch. Done,” said Jim Markow, while standing at the end of a dock in the middle of the harbor.

For the better part of 40 years, Markow has operated Mystic Oysters, a small family-owned company that prides itself on harvesting oysters directly from their own oyster beds and shipping them directly to restaurants and suppliers up and down the East Coast. But with countless restaurants now closed because of the coronavirus, Mystic Oysters no longer has a customer base.

“This is a reality that none of us have ever experienced before,” he added. “It’s terrifying.”

This coastal Connecticut town is typically filled with tourists or vacationers from New York City who own second homes in the area. Harbormasters, though, have closed every marina in Noank. As a business that provides food, Mystic Oysters is considered “essential,” meaning Markow can harvest the oysters he’s spent decades growing at the bottom of the ocean.

But in the last two weeks, he has been forced to lay off nearly every employee who once worked here.

Like countless small business owners across the country, the 63-year-old business owner is now being forced to apply for unemployment for the first time in his life.

“I’m not paying myself a salary. How could I? I can’t afford to take a salary out of the company right now,” he explained. “There’s too many other demands. We’ll do what we need to do to survive.”

The only member of Markow’s crew left is Marc Harrell. On a recent Wednesday, a bitter cold Atlantic breeze whipped across Harrell’s face as he stood at the bow of Markow’s oyster boat. As he dropped a dredge into the water to harvest oysters, Harrell tried is best to think about the positive impact.

“We’re definitely essential. This country needs food, we need farmers,” Harrell said. “Hopefully, on the other side of this, we as a country really take a look at farming and sustainable agriculture to stem the tide when bad things happen.”

To keep the lights on, Harrell has turned to social media to sell clams and oysters that both he and Markow are harvesting by themselves right now. Customers are coming directly to the business to buy food, but Harrell admits it’s a fraction of what they would typically make selling to restaurants or wholesalers.

“How much time it takes to come back from this, nobody knows,” he said.