By Michelle Bearden
Cedar Key oozes Old Florida charm. And what’s not to like?
Surrounded by the Gulf of the Mexico, this Levy County island community (population around 1,000, spiking to 1,300 in the tourist season) is rich in history, funky art galleries and wildlife refuges.
People come here for its laid-back atmosphere and the unspoiled natural environment. On land, they get around on fat-tired bikes and spiffed-up golf carts; offshore, they explore the estuaries and open waters in canoes, kayaks, fishing boats and paddleboards.
Drive over the four bridges from the mainland leading to the heart of Cedar Key and it’s like a step back in time. There’s the charming downtown Island Hotel and Restaurant, established in 1859, which has no televisions or telephones in its turn-of-the-century decorated rooms, but does have a resident ghost wandering the halls. Neighborhoods are lined with two-story clapboard houses in pastel colors and vibrant hues with welcoming wrap-around porches.
The vibe is everywhere you go: Turn off your smart phone, slow down, chill out and exhale.
But second to tourism, something else has put Cedar Key on the map: commercial clamming an Florida clams. It’s grown into a multimillion-dollar industry, giving the local economy a shot in the arm and providing much-needed jobs in Florida’s first key.
And from an ecological standpoint, shellfish aquaculture is regarded a source of habitat enhancement and improved water quality. Marine farmers have bragging rights that their work supports and enhances the state’s fresh, sustainable “green” seafood industry.
Jon Gill of Southern Cross Sea Farms, one of Florida’s largest producers of hard-shell clams, thinks a first-hand education of this thriving business is a must-see for visitors. So he and partner Shawn Stephenson open the doors late fall through May to their full-scale operation for a free behind-the-scenes tour every Friday at 1 p.m.
Apparently, there’s a lot of interest in the birth and life of a clam. The tours have become so popular, Gill says, that they now take reservations for big groups. Their clam farm is the only one on the island that offers an inside glimpse into this burgeoning business.
“All that brownish water at our shoreline may not be so pretty to look at, but it’s why we can have clam farms,” Gill says. “Turns out we have the perfect conditions to raise the best clams.”
For starters, the industry rescued many commercial fishermen who found themselves out of work in 1995 when Florida residents voted to ban the use of gill nets in state waters. Some took advantage of a state initiative that provided clam training programs. Gill (yes, that’s his real name) was one of them.
“I love working on and around the water. This was a natural progression. And I’m happy to say it’s worked out very well.”
Indeed. Southern Cross, which calls itself a “vertically integrated” clam business, ships 20 to 30 million clams annually all over the country. Three years ago, they added oysters to the operation. They’re faster to produce and are in big demand, so that decision turned out to be a profitable one.
Gill typically leads the tour, which runs about an hour.
Think of a mash-up of biology, ecology and business, laced with a little stand-up comedy. It starts at the beginning in the hatchery with the spawning, a temperature-controlled process in a tank that involves no romancing.
“It’s just about getting the moms and dads together and releasing eggs and sperm,” he says. “We don’t keep mood music and wine in here.”
The babies – millions of them in a single batch – are fed a nutrient-rich phytoplankton of cultured algae daily, 365 days a year. Six weeks later, measuring about the size of the head of a pin, they are transferred to the nursery. They live in the farm’s floating dock system for about three months, until they reach the size of an aspirin.
Next is the field work, where they’re put into bags and planted in one of several “lots” in the water leased from the state. Once they grow to the size of a dime, they’re transferred to another set of “growout” bags and taken to fertile clam leases three miles offshore of Cedar Key for a year to 18 months.
Southern Cross keeps four boats available to head out at daybreak to keep on top of filling orders from restaurants all over the country. Once retrieved, the bounty is brought back to the farm to be tumbled (getting rid of anything that’s not a live clam), sorted by four different sizes and counted.
Because freshness is so critical, the Cedar Key clams are harvested, processed and shipped live on the same day.
A little-known clam fact that always surprises the tour participants: The whole process from seed to table takes two years. Though the operation runs like a well-oiled machine, a disruption like a bad storm can wreak havoc.
“If just one step is compromised along the way, it could really knock out our business,” Gill says. “It’s not an overnight process. It requires patience and 24/7 monitoring.”
Southern Cross maintains a small retail operation on location, offering fresh clams and local fish. Epicureans, take note: Pick up free copies of seafood recipes next to the freezer case.
The best way to top off the tour? Head to Tony’s right down the street. What the dinette lacks in charm and space, it makes up for it with some of island’s best home-cooked fare. Topping the list is its famous clam chowder, a three-time consecutive winner in the annual Great Clam Chowder Cook-Off in Newport, R.I., considered the “Super Bowl” of cook-offs.
One bowl of this thick chowder – chock full of clams and potatoes and laced with heavy cream – is the perfect way to fully appreciate the industry that’s keeping Cedar Key humming year-round.
Tony’s also sells fresh, frozen and canned chowder to take home.
“I think if you really want to know Cedar Key, you need to understand this whole clam thing,” Gill says. “Clams gave us new life here. It could have been a sad story after that law was passed, but instead, we have a happy ending.”
If you go…
Southern Cross Sea Farms
12170 State Road 24
Cedar Key, FL 32625
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