Dotted along the waterways of Oyster Bay float hundreds of oyster cages, home to millions of world-class Panacea oysters. The bay is home to marsh islands, bald eagles and other unique wildlife, and natural oyster bars. The waterways, which feature 14 visible freshwater springs, provide one of the most suitable habitats in the world for oyster farming.
American Oyster Company manages one of the 38 Aquaculture Use Zones located in Oyster Bay in Wakulla County, and has perfected the technique of raising and harvesting oysters using floating oyster cages. In suspending the cages eighteen inches from the water’s surface, it provides the oysters with the ideal environment to thrive.
The proof is in the quality and taste of the oysters. The process yields an oyster that strikes the perfect balance of salty and sweet.
Dillon Hazel, owner of American Oyster Company, founded the business in March 2018 along with his partner Rob Olin, owner of Estuary Oysters, LLC. With a background in business management, the industry appealed to him due to his desire to start his own business and make a positive impact in the community and economy.
Sadly, Hurricane Michael rolled ashore seven months later, causing severe devastation to the oyster farms and beds, the ecosystem, and the surrounding community.
Seeking help recouping his losses, Hazel turned to the Florida SBDC at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University (FAMU) for help securing a Florida Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan. When asked about his experience and the assistance received, he recalled:
What type of damage occurred?
“The storm wiped out 2 million of our oysters. We lost 99 percent of our inventory, 90 percent of which was ready for market. When the storm approached, they told us to drop the oysters to the bottom, however this didn’t matter. The salinity of the water increased dramatically and the sudden change shocked and killed the oysters. Our lines broke and the cages became a mangled mess. We also lost one of our boats.”
He added, “The oyster is the keystone species. There are 3,000 other species that rely on oysters being in the water. The more oysters there are in the water, the better the ecosystem will thrive. The fact that I don’t have oysters to bring in means my business isn’t making revenue. In turn, I’m not spending that money here locally. Many of the towns built here along the Panhandle rely on commercial seafood being brought in, so I’m expecting to see the impacts [of the storm continue] for several years to come; at least until the oyster farming community can begin regularly harvesting oysters successfully.”
How did the Emergency Bridge Loan help?
“The bridge loan has been beneficial in helping us continue our work and bounce back. We are going to use the funds to buy new spat [baby oysters] and build a new boat more suitable to working with our floating oyster cages.”
How helpful was the Florida SBDC at FAMU?
“The Florida SBDC was extremely helpful in helping me get the loan. From the time I went in and sat down with [my consultant] Emery, to the time that I had the funds in my bank account, it was about a week. I’ve applied for several loans before and that was certainly the fastest turnaround I’ve ever seen.”
About the Florida Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan Program
Administered by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, in collaboration with the Florida SBDC Network, and supported by Florida First Capital Finance Corporation (FFCFC), the Florida Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan is a short-term, interest-free working capital loan intended to help small businesses “bridge the gap” between the time of a declared disaster and when the business has secured long-term recovery resources, such as insurance proceeds or federal disaster assistance.
As a principal responder in the state’s Emergency Support Function for Business, Industry, and Economic Stabilization, the Florida SBDC Network supports disaster preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation through its Business Continuation Services. As part of its service offering, Florida SBDC professionally certified consultants and disaster specialists are available to provide confidential, no-cost consulting to help affected businesses prepare disaster loan applications and with other post-disaster challenges.