The Williamsport, Pennsylvania, transplant—nicknamed Keller—tasted her first oyster as a foreign exchange student in El Salvador.
“A young boy was carrying around a tray of shucked oysters and lemon juice to sunbathers on the beach, and I tried one,” Keller says. “It was amazing.”
Although she has been an oyster farmer the past six years, her journey spanned several decades, taking her from a government and nonprofit career into the world of oyster farming.
These days, Keller starts her day early. She drives an hour directly south to the Gulf, boards her boat and heads out to her oyster farm. In calm weather, the trip can take 10 minutes.
She arrives to rows of tethered cages that keep her oysters suspended in the water column, floating with the currents and tides that deliver nutrient-rich algae on which the oysters feed.
Keller checks her oyster cages several times a week at her site in Oyster Bay near Piney Island, in protected lands known locally as Spring Creek. She inspects the cages, splitting and sorting the growing oysters to keep the densities low, tumbling them to sort for size and harvesting those that have reached optimal size to sell. Tending requires hauling the cages—and the bags inside that are filled with the oysters—onto her boat. Each bag weighs up to 40 pounds.
Keller takes them to her downtown Tallahassee warehouse, where she sells them by appointment and at local farmers markets. She also supplies a few local restaurants and uses oysters in her catering business for wedding receptions, reunions, corporate parties and birthdays.
A career as a conservationist positioned Keller for the work—from navigatating complex regulations to putting her commitment into action. Today, Keller is one of few female oyster farmers in the Florida Panhandle.
After graduating from State University of New York at Oneonta with a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies, Keller took a job at Cape May Bird Observatory in New Jersey.
“I’d become an avid bird-watcher in college and was fortunate enough to land a job studying migratory birds,” Keller says. “While at Cape May, I received a grant to develop and run a high school HawkWatch initiative that grew into a pilot program to engage students to study birds of prey flyways around the world.”
She went on to work for the New Jersey Environmental Federation—an advocacy group fighting the state’s worst polluters and advocating for better enforcement of environmental laws. Keller joined the group as development director and later served as executive director.
In 1991, The Nature Conservancy recruited her to Florida. She served nearly 29 years in major donor fundraising and government relations before retiring in late summer 2020 to raise oysters full time. Along the way, she built relationships on initiatives between the military and conservationists, creating buffers between military bases and conservation lands.
In 2014, Keller was asked to serve on the advisory committee of the Wakulla Environmental Institute at Tallahassee Community College. The institute was just starting to build an aquaculture curriculum to train future oyster farmers and try to revitalize the local oyster industry.
“I was happy to accept because the mission of the organization was purposeful,” Keller says. “The oyster industry had all but dried up since the BP oil spill in 2010, plus overharvesting and the deterioration of the environment. It was an amazing opportunity.”
The oyster industry is working to rebound. State officials say aquaculture methods will complement the traditional wild oyster harvesting methods (see story on page 15).
In the early stages of developing its first conservation curriculum, the institute found a good match in Keller because of her background. Her experience in government relations and environmental advocacy was crucial to helping navigate the permitting processes through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and federal and Florida Fish and Wildlife regulatory and environmental agencies.
“We had to learn all about the permitting process before we could put anything into the water, and everything had to be approved,” Keller says. “It took a full year to obtain all the permissions and finalize the permitting.”
In June 2014, the Florida Division of Aquaculture presented then-Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet with a request to create Aquaculture Use Zones in the sovereign submerged land off the coast of Wakulla County. By January 2015, the first Aquaculture Use Zone leases were surveyed and marked for growing oysters using in-water-column aquaculture.
“This opened up the whole state for off-bottom aquaculture and began the revitalization of oystering in Florida,” Keller says.
When Tallahassee Community College opened its first aquaculture class to 10 students in 2014, Keller was one of three women selected to participate. As she began the class, she started her own oyster company, naming it OysterMom LLC.
“Every part of oyster farming was new to me,” Keller says. “I was used to doing indoor work and now, all of a sudden, there was real heavy lifting involved. I had to buy my first boat—a 19-foot Carolina Skiff with an outboard—and having never driven a boat before, had to learn how to drive it. I had to make decisions about how to set up the oyster farm infrastructure and put my aquaculture education into practice.
“It meant physically doing the work of setting the lines and cages, seeding the oysters, tending them, harvesting them and finding my own processor before I could take them to market. And I was still working full time at The Nature Conservancy.”
By 2018, Keller changed her growing technique from the long-line method of baskets suspended near the water surface to the off-bottom floating cage system better designed for the deeper waters of her assigned lease. She buys oyster seed from a certified hatchery on the Gulf of Mexico. They are kept at a low density in the cages and tumbled regularly to create a smooth, clean shape and perfect shells.
“To start, the seedling oysters are 6 mm in size,” Keller says. “It can take between eight and 18 months for them to grow large enough to be harvested. They’re like kids. They grow at different rates. This helps to spread out the timing of the harvest.”
Keller grows triploid oysters, which have an extra set of chromosomes, making them sterile. But triploids also grow fatter and can be harvested year-round.
“It’s such a challenge, but it has such tangible results,” she says. “It’s a far cry from my days with an indoor job—and it’s hard work beyond belief—but I love it. And the best reward is seeing the smiles on people’s faces when they eat these delicious oysters.”