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Maine oyster farmer believes new harvesting system will revolutionize industry

By Steve Minich

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    YARMOUTH, Maine (WMTW) — A Maine oyster farm has installed a new harvesting system that the owner said could help revolutionize the industry.

Yarmouth’s Butterfield Shellfish uses what is called the “flip system” to harvest oysters,

“The reason you’d use this system to grow oysters is because it makes the business model a sustainable business,” owner Keith Butterfield said.

Butterfield said he discovered the “flip system” while in New Zealand. He said it will help oyster farms save significantly on labor. His farm is the first in Maine to use it.

“This system allows you to stand upright. The baskets are on a swivel. You can open the baskets up without lifting anything,” Butterfield said.

Farming oysters the traditional way means a lot of lifting every day. Each basket of oysters can weigh 100 pounds. Each one needs to be pulled up from the water one by one, emptied and flipped over.

“The amount of labor to do that it makes it not a sustainable business for a small family farm,” Butterfield said.

Butterfield said he can do mechanically in one hour what used to take him an entire day to accomplish by hand. He said his farm can produce more oysters at a lower cost per oyster.

“This system, this flip farm system, allows for you to increase production to well over a million oysters per worker, per year, and that gives you the profit to run a farming operation,” Butterfield said.

While his farm is the only one in Maine using the method, he hopes the idea will catch on. Most of Maine’s roughly 150 oyster farms don’t see each other as competition. Instead, they work as a cooperative.

“I don’t see them as my competitor at all, whatsoever. So, not only would I like to see them use the mechanization of flip farm, but I’m willing to share, and I think this is an opportunity for clusters of farms to share equipment,” Butterfield said.

Butterfield believes the flip system will allow him to go from selling 200,000 pounds of oysters this year to more than 1 million pounds in two years.

He said that will lead to more profit for his business and a cleaner Casco Bay.

“We’re farming an animal that actually helps the water quality and the marine ecosystem. We need to rebuild our commercial fisheries. This is one component in that we’re improving our waters,” Butterfield said.

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