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Duke Aquafarm

Duke Marine Lab

By: Kendall Jefferys, DCF Communications Intern 

In my first few weeks studying at Duke Marine Lab, I’ve had a taste of a different type of farming – ocean farming! Land or sea, my time as a student has provided unique opportunities to grow, connect with, and think about the food I eat. And I find that growing food is not a one-sided connection: Food connects us to each other. It connects us to our environments. It even connects us to our own bodies.

I visited the Duke Aquafarm for the first time as part of a Duke Immerse Food Studies field trip last fall which took a group of 11 students to farms across Eastern North Carolina. (Our travels also included a stop at a blueberry farm, a cattle ranch, and a confined chicken feeding operation.) Now, over a year since I first visited, I set out for my second Duke Aquafarm Fun Day:

Gear in tow and newly-donned waders, my peers and I file down to the boat on a blustery Saturday afternoon. Located in Atlantic Beach, N.C., the Duke Aquafarm is a 15-minute boat ride away from Duke Marine Lab on Pivers Island. Minutes after leaving dock, we were greeted by a pod of dolphins as they skirted by us on their way through Gallants Channel. Cool breezes, sea spray, and the occasional dolphin sighting certainly make for an exciting journey before the Aquafarm Fun Day begins.

Once docked at the Aquafarm, students with wetsuits and waders hop overboard with buckets and cement tubs – ready to lift and tow baskets of oysters back to the boat. Professor Tom Schultz, who founded the Duke Aquafarm, demonstrates how to empty the floating oyster bags into buckets and tie new bags to lines of rope extending towards shore.  A few people stay on the boat (myself included) to count and sort 150-200 young oysters into “grow-out” bags. The tiny oysters take up a small fraction of the bags. However, in a matter of months, oysters once the size of a quarter grow larger than palm of your hand. Beginning in 2018 with 10 oyster bags and 30,000 baby oysters, known as “spat,” Duke Aquafarm expanded to 100 oyster bags by summer 2019.

Sorting through full-grown oysters led me to reminisce about afternoons working the post-harvest station at Duke Campus Farm: washing lettuce heads, sorting through buckets of cherry tomatoes, selecting the quality produce to share. In the same way DCF crew may sample a cherry tomato or two as they work, Aquafarm volunteers were given the option of shucking their own oyster on the way back -- an acquired taste for some.

While the saltwater may have dried out our skin, it didn’t dry out our curiosity; Why an Aquafarm? Though the oysters do make for a delicious meal at the dining hall, the goal was never commercial production. Instead, Schultz hopes that Duke Aquafarm encourages students to connect with the food they eat and, well, to just have fun! In fact, Schultz was inspired by DCF’s ability to engage students and the enthusiasm expressed by DCF staff and workday volunteers about growing their own food. That enthusiasm spilled over to the coast, planting seeds (or spat?) in a completely new, but equally enchanting, landscape.

Although we didn’t find any, I can’t resist saying that Duke Aquafarm is a true pearl of Duke Marine Lab.

Duke Marine Lab