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In December 2012, diners at the Lakewood Country Club in Point Clear, Alabama, enjoyed a complimentary feast of oysters provided by researchers Dan Petrolia of Mississippi State University (MSU) and Bill Walton of Auburn University. The oysters came from all over the country—some wild, some farmed, some generic, some branded—with a wide range of price points. Diners were asked to indicate which oysters they would be most and least likely to purchase if they were in a restaurant considering these oysters at these prices. The goal of this ongoing Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant-funded study is to determine whether diners in the southeastern United States and around the country will pay a premium for branded high-quality Gulf oysters.
“Imagine you’re going to go buy a car,” Petrolia says. “You have your own personal top five things you’re going to look for—the color, the gas mileage, the whatever. We are trying to identify the top four or five things people look for in an oyster —hence, price, the name or brand, taste, what they look like.”
The Eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica, native to the Gulf and East coasts, tends to come from one of three sources. Natural oysters grow and reproduce in the wild with little to no human intervention and are harvested by commercial fishermen and lease holders that manage private grounds. The vast majority of natural oysters come from the Gulf of Mexico. Lumped together as “Gulf oysters,” they bring the lowest price wholesale. In contrast, farmed oysters are cultivated in baskets in private waters and typically branded with a name that generates a premium price in restaurants around the country. Similarly, managed wild oysters can be harvested from a specific geographical area (and are often hand-selected), such as Galveston Bay in Texas or Apalachicola Bay in Florida, where the oysters are also branded for name recognition. They too fetch a higher price than generic Gulf oysters.
The question, however, is whether consumers, both regionally and in other parts of the country, are willing to pay for farmed and/or branded oysters from the Gulf. “One hypothesis is that people like a nice, pretty, uniform set of oysters in front of them,” Petrolia says. “The cultivated oysters tend to all be roughly the same size and shape, while the wild-caught can vary widely in appearance.”
Walton notes that there has been an “oyster renaissance” in the United States, and that oysters marketed along the Atlantic Coast sell under regional names such as Wellfleets (from Cape Cod), Blue Points (Long Island), Chincoteagues (Virginia), and Beausoleils (New Brunswick). Southern oysters, however, have generally been sold as generic oysters. Rowan Jacobsen, author of A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America, says this is “indicative of a region that pays less attention to the nuances of different raw oysters than to their culinary possibilities.”
The only larger scale exception on the Gulf coast is Apalachicola oysters, which comprise the bulk of Florida’s oyster harvest. Although there is no clear evidence that they sell at a premium, it is evident that a market has developed for these branded oysters. Petrolia and Walton wanted to find out if there is a market for similarly branded oysters from other parts of the Gulf of Mexico.
At the Point Clear taste test, and a similar event in Houston in February 2013, participants were served different combinations of oysters in four rounds. The first two rounds were blind. They were given a price point, but nothing else. The generic Gulf oysters at a significantly lower cost fared very well in the blind test, getting 41 percent of the vote based on taste and price. In the final two rounds, tasters were told the brand or point of origin of the oysters. Here, voters showed a clear geographical preference: The four branded oysters from Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida together received 45 percent of the vote, while voters shied away from the East Coast brands when they were aware of the oysters’ origin.
After the taste test portion of the event, diners were given a questionnaire regarding their feelings on issues such as price point, brand, and geographical origin. The ultimate goal is to develop an online questionnaire to survey a wide cross-section of national consumers regarding their preferences when selecting oysters at restaurants. Petrolia and Walton have contracted with a marketing company to recruit a representative sample of consumers of raw oysters from the five Gulf states, as well as from major metropolitan cities such as Chicago and New York, to determine the factors, including perceptions of risk, that go into oyster choice nationally. The two have created an advisory board of industry professionals to help design the survey with the intent of being able to hand the professionals helpful, real-world data when the project is complete.
“The results of the survey will help us tailor our production characteristics and marketing techniques to enable us the best chance of penetrating and competing in many high-value markets currently unavailable to Gulf oyster products,” notes Chris Nelson, vice president of Alabama’s Bon Secour Fisheries. “An attribute as simple as ‘saltiness’ may be of much greater importance than we realize at this point, and ‘Gulf’ vs. ‘Pepper Grove’ may market completely differently.”
Walton, a fisheries specialist, has spent years studying the science of oyster aquaculture. He thinks that the Gulf Coast fisheries industry is missing out on a potential economic driver by not cultivating and branding oysters in addition to harvesting what’s already there. He believes a market exists for higher-price-point “boutique” Gulf oysters not only in the region but in larger cities around the nation. He speculates the oysters will do well in cities like Boston and Chicago, and plans to hold a similar restaurant event in Chicago to test his theory.
“We already know that there are consumers who are willing to pay a higher price for a premium oyster,” Walton says, adding that Gulf oysters have an advantage in the winter months because the oysters harvested out of the Northeast can be relatively “skinny” due to a lack of food in the water regionally. “The oysters out of the Gulf are fat, plump—you get a lot of oyster in the shell. That looks really good in comparison to some of the oysters coming out of the more northern climates. On a raw bar in the colder months, our product really stands out.”
Walton’s expertise, combined with that of Petrolia, an agricultural economist at MSU, will go toward defining the attributes that oyster consumers look for when purchasing in general, along with identifying specific regional and national interest in branded Gulf oysters. This information will be useful to everyone, from those who harvest wild oysters or cultivate their own to distributors to the restaurant industry itself, but particularly to industry professionals in the Gulf states who might be missing out on an economic opportunity.
By Bill Walton and Dan Petrolia
The stories behind the headlines, available in April 2015
“In recent years, technology has made a major impact on the way we think, how we work and the manner in which we share information, both professionally and privately. The immense ability to instantly transfer information, thoughts and ideas across a world stage has led to an unprecedented boon in information availability, research sharing and both social and industrial development.” –Eric O’Neill, founder of The Georgetown Group, LLC, former FBI operative, Auburn graduate and contributor to Auburn Speaks: On Cyber and the Digital Domain.
Cyber touches all our lives. Digitized information teaches us, entertains us, keeps track of our finances, monitors our health and our food supply, facilitates rapid and open communication, allows nearly instantaneous access to information and resides at the heart of our nation’s critical infrastructure. Enhanced with our new augmented reality app, TigerView, the latest edition of Auburn Speaks features stories of the Auburn men and women who are helping to not only navigate and secure the cyber frontier, but to explore the promise it offers.
To learn more about this award-winning series published by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development at Auburn University visit: http://www.auburn.edu/auburnspeaks
As a land-grant university, Auburn University serves the state and its people as a discoverer of new knowledge and ideas, and as a repository of science, literature, history, art, and culture. Every day, Auburn experts add to that store of knowledge–developing new processes, materials, and technologies along the way. They then take this expertise and focus it on real-world challenges and problems. In putting good ideas to work, Auburn researchers improve quality of life, strengthen the economy, and help keep us safe and secure.
Because this aspect of Auburn University is little known and often not well understood, Auburn Speaks seeks to translate and make accessible the sometimes dense and mysterious language of research, and to capture Auburn’s role in addressing the increasingly complex issues facing our state, nation and world. Produced by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development, Auburn Speaks is an annual book series focusing on a specific research topic of interest to a public audience.
To date, we have produced three issues in the series. Released in April of 2012, the inaugural issue, Auburn Speaks: The Oil Spill of 2010 is devoted to chronicling Auburn University’s research related to the catastrophic oil spill in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. Released in the spring of 2013, the second issue, Auburn Speaks: On Water, seeks to provide readers with insight into the breadth and depth of water-related research and creative scholarship at Auburn. The third issue, Auburn Speaks: On Food Systems was released in the spring of 2014 and focuses on food, food-related topics, and hunger.
We are pleased to announce that we have partnered with EBSCO Media to make each issue of Auburn Speaks available through their print-on-demand service. Each issue is now newly available in the same beautiful form and style as its initial release.
It is a privilege to share our research story with you. Through Auburn Speaks you are able to see firsthand what motivates our talented experts, to hear about the challenges they face, and gain an understanding of how their commitment and perseverance have led to innovation and discovery. With your purchase of Auburn Speaks, you help fuel the engines of innovation and foster opportunities for partnership by sharing the work of Auburn experts throughout the state and region.
“This event was a collaborative effort to support those who make their living from the Gulf and the Auburn researchers who help them succeed.”
Chef David Bancroft is tireless in his efforts to find the best ingredients for the fresh, new interpretations of Southern classics he cooks up in his kitchen at Acre restaurant in Auburn. He’s so committed to sourcing those ingredients as close to his kitchen as possible that he grows as many as he can on the one-acre parcel the restaurant occupies on Glenn Avenue. However, in a complex, modern food system, it can sometimes be difficult to access, say, Alabama seafood, just in time to introduce a special dish to his restaurant’s hip, ever-evolving menu.
This is a lesson he learned the hard way last winter when he decided to throw a party in honor of the lowly oyster. Hoping to take advantage of the peak in oyster flavor and texture that occurs when Alabama’s coastal waters cool down in winter, and knowing that a handful of folks on the coast were farming the salty bivalves, Bancroft attempted to procure thousands of them for his event. To his disappointment, the system wasn’t in place to bring in the number he needed just in time for his first oyster social, and he resorted to sourcing the main ingredient from Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay.
Regardless of their provenance, the oysters were a hit, and the social was such a success that the chef decided to host a reprise – the Alabama Oyster Social – a sold out event at Acre restaurant Jan. 30. Obviously, Alabama-farmed oysters were the stars of the show.
Thanks to a long-time family connection, Bancroft knew just where to find the help he needed to get a ton of oysters from the coast to his kitchen for this year’s event: the Auburn University School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences. Bancroft’s family and SFAAS Interim Director John Jensen go way back, 35 years to be exact, to the beginning of Jensen’s work with Paul Kennedy, Bancroft’s maternal grandfather and a catfish and tilapia farmer in Hartford, Alabama. Having witnessed SFAAS researchers’ work on his granddad’s farm, Bancroft knew the value of their efforts to establish new markets for sustainably grown products and to streamline processes for the Alabamians who produce them. He also knew about the researchers’ efforts to get oyster farming off the ground – literally and figuratively – in communities long dependent on the state’s wild fisheries.
One of the leaders in Auburn’s oyster farming efforts is Bill Walton, a fisheries and aquaculture expert and former part-time Cape Cod oyster farmer who relocated to the Gulf Coast five years ago. As leader of the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory on Dauphin Island and a specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Walton hopes to one day see “branded” oysters coming from each of the farms he’s working with – each known for a unique taste, texture, appearance or some other characteristic, and each sought after by chefs like Bancroft and those who will join him in serving up the shellfish at the social. The social will feature a variety of Alabama premium oysters, including Isle Dauphines, Mon Louis’, Murder Points, Point aux Pins and Southern Pearls, and a number of the oyster farmers and their families will be a part of the festivities.
So, what exactly is an oyster social?
“It’s not a sit-down meal,” said Bancroft, who has recruited some of the South’s most acclaimed young chefs to develop a menu that will not disappoint. “It’s a party for a purpose.”
Chef Adam Evans of Atlanta’s The Optimist, Chef Jason Stanhope of FIG in Charleston and fellow Alabama chefs Rob McDaniel and Wesley True helped Bancroft transform the farm-fresh delicacies into bite-sized dishes deserving of celebration.
In addition to oysters, the event featured tastings from Southern beverage makers Cathead Vodka, Back Forty Beer, Sazerac and others. While enjoying food, drink and live country music from Mobile natives BB Palmer and Kudzu, guests may not realized exactly what the purpose of the party was. But Bancroft stressed that the whole idea was to highlight the quality of Alabama-farmed oysters and the value of related research Auburn fisheries is doing.
“This event was a collaborative effort to support those who make their living from the Gulf and the Auburn researchers who help them succeed,” Bancroft said. “These colleagues and I in the food and beverage industry understand the ecological and economic value of sustainable fisheries, and in particular, we wanted to highlight the quality of sustainably farmed oysters being produced on Alabama’s coast.”
by Mary Catherine Gaston
The results are in on Deepwater Horizon oil spill research conducted by an Auburn University postdoctoral researcher, and her study indicates microscopic animals at the base of the food web that were harmed during the 2010 oil spill have recovered.
The researcher, Pamela Brannock of the Department of Biological Sciences in Auburn’s College of Sciences and Mathematics, or COSAM, together with a team from Auburn Professor Kenneth Halanych’s lab and the University of Texas San Antonio, gathered and analyzed sediment samples taken before and after the oil reached Dauphin Island. The samples provided a basis for comparison to assess how the microscopic communities of marine invertebrates that live between the sand grains, or meiofauna, fared the oil spill.
An initial study, conducted by Halanych and colleagues at the University of New Hampshire, revealed an increased presence of fungus in meiofaunal communities. According to the study, a rise in fungus indicated organismal death, and COSAM researchers were concerned that oil, or perhaps dispersants used to clean up the spill, may have been responsible for irreversibly harming meiofaunal communities.
Brannock’s latest research results indicate the fungus that was present in large amounts in the sediment immediately after the oil spill is no longer there, which means the microscopic marine invertebrates are no longer dying at an alarming rate.
“For one year, people from the Halanych Lab intermittently collected sediment samples at five intertidal locations throughout Dauphin Island and Mobile Bay,” Brannock said. “We would freeze the sediment immediately on dry ice and then store it in the minus 80 degree freezer when we came back. Coming back into the lab we would do this process called ‘decanting,’ which is basically agitating the sediment in order to release the organisms. We would then isolate the meiofauna, or animals, on a sieve, and we would extract the DNA from that material. We would then send the DNA off to be sequenced, and we used computers and bioinformatics to determine which animals were present in the communities sampled.”
Researchers are relieved that the microscopic invertebrates seem to no longer be in danger of mass destruction. However, Brannock’s research also shows that while fungus is no longer present, there has been a significant shift in the composition of meiofaunal communities compared to pre-spill communities. The research was published in The Biological Bulletin at this link: http://www.biolbull.org/content/227/2/161.full.pdf+html.
“These communities of small organisms have recovered from the oil spill, but we are still trying to assess how much natural variation exists in these communities,” Halanych said. “These communities are important because they are at the base of the food web, and they are also critically involved in helping pass nutrients and chemicals back and forth from the sediment to the water column. Pamela has continued to look quite extensively at these small organisms to see how they are faring and whether their communities are changing.”
Halanych said this kind of research is critically important to assessing the health of the Gulf Coast ecosystem.
Auburn University researchers continue to investigate effects of the oil spill
“One of the things we have learned is that the effects from an environmental catastrophe like this can take a long time to be realized,” Halanych said. “One of the main reasons we should be concerned with or interested in studying the effects is, in all likelihood, another spill is going to occur. The Gulf Coast region has a huge number of rigs, about 4,000, and we keep going into deeper and deeper water to drill. As you move into deeper water, the engineering challenges become greater and greater and greater. The concern is another big blowout, like the Deepwater Horizon, may happen in the Gulf. The hope is we have collected enough information about the Deepwater Horizon spill that we can apply that knowledge to the next spill and be able to control the damage a little bit better.”
As a member of the Gulf of Mexico Research Board, Halanych has his finger on the pulse of oil-spill-related research in the Gulf. The 20 scientists that make up the board are tasked with distributing $500 million over a 10-year period for oil spill research. The board awards funds to investigators based on a highly competitive, peer-reviewed proposal process. BP provided the funding for the Gulf of Mexico Research Board, but the funding is now independent of the multinational oil-and-gas company.
“This work continues, and it has already made a huge difference for the Gulf Coast region,” Halanych said. “Unfortunately, in many ways the Gulf Coast is the forgotten coast in terms of national funding priorities. The west coast, especially southern California, and the northeast really have major marine and oceanographic efforts, and there is a lot of money that goes there. The Gulf Coast does have institutions but typically federal funding does not flow in the same way to these areas. This research initiative is helping with that – it is helping to stimulate scientific research, and one of the things we are hoping is we will be able to build much stronger capacity so in the future we can address societal concerns and national research priorities.”
Halanych’s group will continue to investigate effects of the oil spill on the Gulf Coast. Brannock plans to continue her research into the composition of meiofaunal communities in the Gulf region and how they change over time so she can establish a baseline dataset for the next time an event like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurs. The Halanych Lab has also received soil samples from various NOAA cruises throughout the Gulf of Mexico taken right after the spill and a year after the spill. The lab is working to compare the meiofaunal communities in samples from sites located within or near the spill to communities present in samples from areas that were not impacted by the spill.
“As the spill was happening, a lot of people around the coast realized this was going to be a big deal, and people at Auburn, including researchers in the College of Sciences and Mathematics, started mobilizing because we knew there were going to be things that needed to be studied,” said Halanych. “COSAM researchers have stayed involved because we want to know the effects through time. We want to know how this will be a lasting problem or if this will be a lasting problem, and we want to be ready for the next oil spill.”
To learn more about Auburn’s research related to the oil spill, check out: Auburn Speaks: The Oil Spill of 2010.
by Candis Birchfield
A newly organized consortium of the state’s top university cyber researchers has been awarded an NSF Science, Technology, and Society grant to develop a three-day conference at the National Science Foundation in Bethesda, Maryland in May. The conference will focus on ethics and digital forensics.
The Alabama Cyber Research Consortium (ALCRC) is a partnership of the seven PhD-granting universities in Alabama. Formed in 2013, after years of informal and formal collaborations between smaller groups of the partner Universities, the ALCRC is the culmination of individual and collective commitments to research, advanced development, education, and outreach in all areas of the cyber domain. Member institutions include: Alabama A&M University, Auburn University, Tuskegee University, The University of Alabama, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the University of Alabama in Huntsville and the University of South Alabama.
“This award represents the first funding opportunity and significant national recognition for the ALCRC. It powerfully demonstrates the validity of the consortium and how closely tied together we are as members. It also speaks to the new ways in which higher education can organize to advance research in critical areas like cyber,” said Anthony Skjellum, COLSA cyber security and information assurance professor in the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering, and director of the Auburn Cyber Research Center in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering at Auburn University.
The ALCRC, along with The University of Alabama’s Cyber Institute and the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Center for Information Assurance and Joint Forensics Research have received a significant grant from the NSF to design a national conference in the spring of 2015. The event will provide opportunities for members of the cyber community to address critical issues in digital forensics, including a lack of unifying ethical standards, procedures and guidelines for routine activities such as forensic analysis, cyber-crime case processing and data mining/surveillance.
“Auburn University is proud to be recognized as one of the founding members of the Alabama Cyber Research Consortium for our focus on and role in addressing topics of such vital importance to our state and nation. It reflects our commitment to the primary mission of serving the people of Alabama,” said Lieutenant General (retired) Ron Burgess, senior counsel for national security programs, cyber programs and military affairs at Auburn University.
“This is the first time that the topic of ethical guidelines for digital forensic examiners has been openly discussed at such a high level forum, “ said John Sloan, director of UAB’s Center for Information Assurance and Joint Forensics Research, and principal investigator of the grant. “We hope to develop policies and ‘best practices’ as a result of this conference that will assist forensic examiners and reduce potential lawsuits and mishandled criminal cases.”
In a statement issued earlier this month, Reginald Hyde, executive director of The University of Alabama’s Cyber Institute said, “This grant is the first of many anticipated funded projects between members of the Alabama Cyber Research Consortium. UA’s Institute is excited to begin developing cyber policy—such as that projected by this project—that benefits the citizens of Alabama.”
The Alabama Cyber Research Consortium is an active group of scientists, engineers, and affiliates committed to creating solutions with practical impact on the state, local, regional, and national economy, and to helping consumers, corporations, and the public sector solve real problems and avoid significant harm involving cybercrime and related national security issues.
Auburn’s Gulf Coast Research and Extension Center and the Underwood Family: Putting Good Ideas To Work in the Pecan Industry
One measure of a land-grant university’s success is the impact it has on people throughout its state. The Underwoods, from Baldwin County, Alabama, are leaders in the pecan industry and credit Auburn for significant contributions to their success.
Gary Underwood grew up in a pecan orchard near Foley, helping his parents, Vaughn and Marcline, take care of the family pecan orchard, a task he continues today. Later he gained experience in the pecan nursery business while working with his uncle, Bill Underwood.
Today, Gary and his wife, Billie Jo, are a farm family living in Summerdale and are extensively involved with the pecan industry. They have their own pecan orchard and a pecan and fruit nursery business. They assist with the family retail marketing of pecans. Billie Jo, a certified public accountant, helps with the business management. Sister-in-law Amanda Underwood runs the retail side of the business. Gary Underwood is a national leader in the industry.
Gary is quick to recognize Auburn University as instrumental in his success. The proximity of his orchard and nursery to Auburn’s Gulf Coast Research and Extension Center at Fairhope has led to his being a frequent visitor to the center. A keen observer, he has kept up with the center’s ongoing research and has gained valuable information about the farming and nursery business.
Underwood says now-retired station superintendent Ronnie McDaniel was a good source in the beginning, and former Auburn research associate Monte Nesbitt, a pecan and citrus authority, worked hand-in-hand with Gary on both the orchard and nursery projects. Nesbitt and Gary shared a love for budding and grafting, and they worked together on perfecting this intricate process. Current research associate Brian Wilkins brings a strong background in fruit research that is also valuable to Gary—he grows Satsuma oranges, blackberries, pears, plums, and persimmons, as well as pecans, in his nursery business.
Auburn Extension horticulturist Bill Goff developed a technique for improving the success of whip-grafting nursery stock using small trees and placing the graft on controlled- temperature heating cables. Gary further refined the technique, which enables him to produce a marketable grafted container pecan tree in one season. The process formerly took three seasons, so this was a huge advantage, especially considering the high demand for pecan nursery stock following the exponential increase in Chinese imports of pecans.
Not only was the technique of how to propagate the nursery trees developed at Auburn, but most of the cultivars Gary grows were discovered and/or evaluated and recommended by Auburn. Since south Alabama is among the rainiest locations in the country where pecans are grown, resistance to disease is a major consideration in cultivar choices. Auburn’s nearby low- input cultivar trial at Fairhope served as a model for selecting the proper cultivars for Gary to grow. Gafford, McMillan, Syrup Mill, and Amling seedling selections were identified by Auburn scientists, evaluated thoroughly, and ultimately recommended, and these cultivars are the mainstays of Gary’s nursery sales. Once these were identified, members of the Auburn team, notably Cathy Browne, provided graftwood to Gary to allow him to propagate the selections and get them into the industry trade. Further, Auburn arranged—in cooperation with the Louisiana State Forest Nursery—to procure a source of seedling trees for Gary to use.
“I could never have achieved what I have achieved in the pecan or nursery business without the assistance I have received from Auburn,” Gary says. Adds Billie Jo, “He and I will be forever grateful.”
As Gary developed his pecan orchard and nursery business, he also became involved in leadership roles in the pecan industry. He was selected Alabama Pecan Grower of the Year by the Alabama Pecan Growers Association in 1999, serving as president of the association from 1999-2001 and continuing in an active role on their board of directors today. His leadership expanded from state to regional to national offices, and he was elected president of the Southeastern Pecan Growers Association in 2010. Finally, in 2012, Gary became president of the National Pecan Growers Council.
The latest national pecan association with which he is involved is the National Pecan Council, an organization representing the interests of the entire U.S. pecan industry—growers, shellers, and processors. The National Pecan Council named Gary as its Southeastern grower representative in 2012.
This article was written by Karen Hunley of the Auburn University Food Systems Institute (AUFSI) to accompany Auburn Speaks: On Food Systems. To learn more about AUFSI, visit: www.aufsi.auburn.edu. To read more great articles like this one, visit: www.auburn.edu/auburnspeaks.