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Marketer, Educator, Processor

Selling fish at farmers' market.

Paige Hogge sells Spanish mackerel to Karen Beale at the Williamsburg Farmers’ Market. ©Janet Krenn/VASG

Selling fish at farmers' market.

Paige Hogge sells Spanish mackerel to Karen Beale at the Williamsburg Farmers’ Market. ©Janet Krenn/VASG

Virginia Marine Resource Bulletin
Volume 42, Number 1, Winter 2010
By Janet Krenn

It’s 5 A.M. on a Saturday, and Paige Hogge is pulling away from her Urbanna, Virginia, home. Her car is packed with a tent, two tables, a cash register, and about 150 pounds of seafood. The load is topped off with almost 300 pounds of ice and boxes of zip-top bags, which she’ll use to make “mini coolers to go” for her customers to keep their seafood from heating up.

Every Saturday from April through October, Hogge goes to the Williamsburg Farmers’ Market to sell fish for her husband Jimmy’s company, Buster’s Seafood. She shares recipes, sells seafood, and makes ten times more per pound than other watermen make selling their catch exclusively to wholesalers.

Hogge is so encouraged by this success that in 2009 she started the Water Harvest Program, which will teach other watermen how they can make more money per pound by selling their catch directly to consumers.

When asked why she’s willing to let others in on her secrets, Hogge explains that between her full-time job as an Administrative Assistant, regular Saturday and Sunday appearances at the Williamsburg and Dupont Circle Farmers’ Markets, and Jimmy’s six-day-a-week fishing business, “we really can’t do any more. So why not share?”

Water Harvest
The Water Harvest Program began with a letter Hogge wrote to Governor Kaine and has since become a multi-agency-backed project, spearheaded by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) with financial support from the Virginia Fisheries Resource Grant Program and participation by the Virginia Sea Grant Marine Extension Program and the Virginia Marine Products Board.

In the summer of 2009, the program got its official start. Hogge sent out surveys to more than 600 watermen and aquaculturists to gauge their interest in learning how to sell direct at farmers’ markets. Several watermen responded, and now Hogge is planning a Spring 2010 workshop to teach those interested everything they need to know to sell direct to consumers. The two-day workshop will consist of a tour of Buster’s Seafood facilities and expert-led sessions on direct marketing and regulations.

“Early on we had wanted to do the program because it’s clear that [direct sales] have been very lucrative for Paige and Jimmy,” says Leanne DuBois, Manager of Direct Marketing Services for VDACS. “Paige is very passionate, and has seen other [watermen] struggle, not getting what they deserve for the time and effort they put in.”

The Water Harvest Program seems to be arriving at the right time. Consumers are seeking out locally produced food, and according to Libbey Oliver, Director of the Williamsburg Farmers’ Market, there’s demand for seafood venders at Virginia’s farmers’ markets.

“Customers want to come to a market and get their eggs, pasta, flowers, anything they need to enjoy their week in between market days. Markets want to round out offerings with seafood,” says Oliver. This year alone, eight markets in Virginia were actively looking for seafood producers to add to their offerings.

Buy Local
Customers at Hogge’s booth at the Williamsburg Farmers’ Market say that each bag of clams or fillets comes with an additional helping of satisfaction.

“When you buy at the farmers’ market you’re not paying for long-range transport and the pollution that goes with it,” says Ron Merski, whose satisfaction comes from being eco-friendly.

Angelica Kitner says she buys most of her seafood from the farmers’ market and indicates that knowing where it comes from gives her confidence in the product.

“I like it because I know it’s fresh,” Kitner explains.

These comments illustrate some of the appeal of the Buy Local movement, a national trend of seeking out, buying, and eating food produced near where you live. The trend has undoubtedly contributed to the success of Buster’s Seafood at farmers’ markets.

Demand for local foods is on an upswing in Virginia. Over the past seven years, the number of farmers’ markets in the Commonwealth has more than doubled, from 60 to 150. And these markets are not only numerous, they’re popular. In the summer of 2009, Virginians voted 6 of their farmers’ markets into the top 20 in three categories of the America’s Favorite Farmers’ Market contest. Williamsburg Farmers’ Market won first place nationwide in the mid-size division.

Expanding the Market
Not many people yelp for joy when they see Spanish mackerel, but that’s just how Karen Beale reacted when she found one for sale at the Buster’s Seafood tent at the Williamsburg Farmers’ Market. Paige Hogge says more typical reactions range from children holding their noses and saying, “Ew! It stinks!” to older adults nostalgically remarking, “It smells like the ocean.”

“We grew up fishing for Spanish mackerel both here and in South Carolina,” explains Beale. “It’s a fish you don’t see on the menu in restaurants or in traditional markets. The only place you can get it is from small specialty places like this.”

Because Virginians don’t often see local seafood for sale, Hogge says she spends a lot of her time at the farmers’ market introducing customers to seafood found only miles from their homes.
In fact, this seems to be the greatest challenge when it comes to seafood and the Buy Local movement: Exposing today’s consumers to local product, when the mainstream American palate tends towards the three most popular seafoods—shrimp, tuna, and salmon (little of which are harvested from Virginia waters).

Even without these popular products, Virginia produces a lot of seafood. The state has consistently ranked third or fourth nationwide in seafood landings over the past ten years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual “Fisheries of the United States” reports. If all of the 460 million pounds of seafood landed in Virginia annually stayed in state, each Virginian would eat 16 meals of seafood per year. In reality, much of Virginia’s seafood is exported to other countries or states where there is demand for the kinds of fish we have locally.

Tim Parsons, who at the time represented J.H. West Seafood, experiences first hand how regional tastes can affect a seafood business. As he rattles off six New England states and cities that make up the bulk of sales, he concludes that a very small portion of the company’s 30 million clams stay in Virginia each year.

Parsons has been marketing clams for about 20 years. He estimates that J.H. West Seafood is one of the three largest clam outfits in Virginia, but notes that the demand for clams is not growing. To expand business, Parsons has to start at the beginning: creating demand.

“Basically, it’s like planting a bunch of seeds,” Parsons says of his efforts. “You don’t know which ones will grow.”

Educating the Consumer
One way Parsons has planted seeds is by participating in a program at Ukrop’s supermarkets last August to educate shoppers about local seafood. Ukrop’s teamed up with Mike Hutt and the Virginia Marine Products Board to feature Virginia watermen and Virginia seafood products at in-store displays.

To improve customers’ awareness of their Virginia seafood products, Ukrop’s first invited Hutt and the Virginia Marine Products Board into its stores in 2008. The displays consisted of a table with free samples and brochures and offered customers the opportunity to talk with representatives from the Board and with Virginia watermen or seafood company staff members. Although the effort had a short-term impact—sales of Virginia seafood jumped by eight percent during the promotion—those increases didn’t translate into long-term sales.

Hugh Davidson, Ukrop’s meat and seafood buyer, suspects that there’s some stigma attached to seafood, which accounts for about ten percent of total meat sales.

“It’s almost as if people are scared of it,” he says. “They may not have eaten it before, or they don’t know how to prepare it.” Davidson’s sentiment is echoed at the farmers’ market.

“The marine world can be quite foreign to most of us,” says Libbey Oliver of the Williamsburg Farmers’ Market. She says that although there is currently demand for seafood at the farmers’ market, customers still need some informal education about local products.

“It’s a real exchange with the customer,” says Paige Hogge, who has weekly conversations at the Williamsburg Farmers’ Market on everything from the seasonality of fish and environmental concerns to what species of fish are local to Virginia and how to prepare them. “I can’t tell you how many people I taught to make oyster stew.”

Land of Opportunity
It seems everywhere she drives in her town of Urbanna, Hogge sees fertile ground for developing the local seafood industry. She sees a vacant shucking house the size of a shed and thinks, “You could process clams in there.” There’s a large abandoned facility near a marina, and she can see it coming alive again as a high-throughput crab processing facility.

Behind the Hogges’ Urbanna home is their soft crab shedding facility, where they hold crabs until they are ripe and can be packaged for sale. The facility is a cool, dimly lit labyrinth of tanks full of crabs zipping about.

The Hogges also have a seafood processing facility down the road.

“That [facility] had not been used for picking crabs in ten years,” says Hogge, “so we had some upgrading to do and new requirements to meet.” Some renovations were relatively simple tasks, such as painting walls or screening in areas to make them fly-proof. Others included the addition of a partition to separate the ice machine from the cool room and a conveyor belt to remove shells from the shucking room.

Paige is keeping her eye on another facility that would further expand Buster’s Seafood’s capabilities—the original shucking house that they leased from a neighbor during that first year at Williamsburg Farmers’ Market.

“People think they need to build from scratch, but these places are here. All somebody needs to do is get a little interest and do some updating, and they can do what we’re doing,” she says.

Although there is a demand for direct-to-consumer sales, Mike Hutt of the Virginia Marine Products Board sees the capital investment and regulations as the biggest obstacles preventing other watermen from following Hogge’s lead and selling their seafood direct to consumers.

To provide oysters, steamed crab, lump crab, fillets, and the occasional whole eel at Williamsburg and Dupont Circle Farmers’ Markets, Buster’s Seafood needs to follow more than 20 sets of regulations that govern everything from how they harvest and process fish and shellfish to using certified scales at the point of sale. Three reports get filed annually, while there are anywhere from 13 to 25 site assessments of the processing facilities throughout the year.

“Knowing a lot of these watermen, it’s hard to say how many are going to step up, and it’s not only a question of interest. There’s getting the facility capability,” Hutt says. “Certainly it will be beneficial if they can do it.”

Despite the additional work she and Jimmy have put in making Buster’s Seafood a direct-to-consumer business, Hogge is confident that watermen in the Water Harvest Program can benefit just as Buster’s Seafood has.

“Now is a tough time to launch a program of any kind because of the economy. On the other hand, that might help this program because now might be the time that the watermen need to get the most out of their product,” Hogge says.

For More Information

Aquaculturists and Watermen who are interested in participating in The Water Harvest Program should contact Paige Hogge at 804-370-4210.

Paige and Jimmy Hogge have created a guide for fishermen who want to sell their catch at farmers’ markets.