BOSTON — Oysters, clams and other shellfish soon could take their place next to tomatoes, sweet corn, blueberries and other more typical offerings at farmers markets in Massachusetts.
State officials, market managers and shellfish farmers are considering the expansion of a pilot program that began last year in a handful of markets under a strict set of food safety guidelines.
Les Hemmila, owner of Barnstable Sea Farms, sold oysters last year at farmers markets in Hyannis and Osterville on Cape Cod and is planning to do so again this year. Like other farmers who sell at markets, he sees it as a unique opportunity to reach consumers directly.
“They want to know it’s really, really fresh and it’s good to know where your food is coming from and who grew it,” Hemmila said.
“It also allows the product to get to people who can’t afford to buy it in restaurants,” he added.
While not generally thought of in the same sense as farmers who tend fields or raise livestock, aquaculturists — as they are sometimes called — are recognized as farmers by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Their farms are generally small tracts of ocean or fresh water where they carefully cultivate and harvest fish, crustaceans or shellfish.
Hemmila is one of a relatively small number of shellfish growers allowed to participate in the farmers market experiment since he is already a licensed wholesale dealer.
That’s important, said Daniel McKiernan, deputy director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, because shellfish are highly regulated. They are often consumed uncooked and can be harmful to humans if subject to red tide (toxic algae) or other contaminants.
“The technical question and the policy question is ‘Can we do shellfish in farmers markets?’ and because it’s a high-hazard food, it’s a lot more complicated than just selling a tomato,” said McKiernan, who held an informal meeting with growers on the Cape this week to discuss the program.
Among the strict guidelines governing shellfish are temperature controls and a traceability requirement that allows public health officials quickly to determine exactly where the food came from should a consumer gets sick. The rule applies not only to local sales but to shellfish that is shipped around the country.
Some growers also harvest shellfish in the wild, further complicating the feasibility of direct sales to consumers at farmers markets, McKiernan said. Those who do sell must obtain permission from the Division of Marine Fisheries and the state Department of Public Health’s Food Protection Program in addition to the local board of health where the market is located.
Jeff Cole, executive director of the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets, said his group is supportive of expanding shellfish sales and has been working behind the scenes for years to address any health concerns.
“There are many market managers who are advocating for caution and we agree,” said Cole. “That’s why we’re not saying, ‘It worked last year, let’s just open it up.”’
People who shop at farmers markets are constantly asking managers to expand the product line, he said.
Approximately 250 commercial farmers markets are expected to operate in Massachusetts this year, generating by some estimates up to $20 million in sales. If the shellfish program is expanded, i t likely would be limited to a relatively small number of markets in coastal areas.
Hemmila, who sold oysters out of a refrigerated truck during the initial year of the pilot program, found shoppers a bit hesitant at first.
“They weren’t mobbing the truck by any means,” he said. “It’s borderline worthwhile, but it’s a lot of fun and it’s a good way to get your name out. Eventually, it will build up.”