During his 30 years as a shellfish farmer, Bill Dewey has developed a faster-growing clam that sports a unique tweed-pattern shell.
“Although the tides may not be cooperative, a clam farmer is a stubborn sort, so try! try! we will.” — from the “Chuckanut Shellfish Journal”
LATE APRIL, in the village of Bow, Bill Dewey, his wife, Joyce, and son, Andy, load their boat, the Clamdango!, in preparation for a trip to their farm. Dressed in sweatshirts, faded blue jeans and hip-high rubber boots against the cruel Northwest cold, the men hoist 125-pound rolls of netting and stacks of colorful plastic pallets onto a large, flat-bottomed scow, then drive aboard the tractor and harvesting machine.
Dewey checks his watch frequently and cuts short an important cellphone call. It’s imperative we push off from Fish Point in strict adherence to the day’s tide table. Miss low tide and the farm will be submerged; stay out even a few minutes too late and costly farm equipment could be damaged or lost.
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As we squeeze into the Clamdango!’s small cabin for the two-mile ride to Chuckanut Shellfish farm, Lucy, the family’s golden Lab, bounds in behind us and flops across our feet.
“You learn the bay,” Dewey says as he uses visual cues and a sophisticated GPS radar unit to guide the Clamdango! to the family’s 32-acre farm in the middle of Samish Bay.
On the ride, Dewey talks about growing up in New England and being inspired to become a marine biologist while working summers at seafood restaurants on Cape Cod. He graduated from the University of Washington School of Fisheries in 1981 and planted his first clam beds at Chuckanut Shellfish in 1998.
Within five years, Dewey’s “hobby farm” turned a profit. He and Joyce married there nine years ago. Clam farming paid for his sons’ educations and will help provide for the couple’s retirement.
During his 30 years as a shellfish farmer, Dewey has developed a faster-growing clam that sports a unique tweed-pattern shell. He grows his clams in sand instead of under gravelly rocks and in rows, versus blanket farming on the beach. And he harvests them using a 30-year-old converted tulip-bulb-harvesting machine, a sensible alternative to labor-intensive and costly hand digging.
We arrive at the farm. As high tide rolls out, the boats become landlocked, and neat rows of clam netting — eight miles total — appear. The air hangs heavy with an intense vegetal, briny, musky — almost unbearably rich — aroma.
“It’s eel grass, phytoplankton and the mud flat itself. Heaven,” Dewey says as he breathes it all in.
Animals emerge as well. Miniature crabs scuttle sideways across the sand. Water spouts from butter-clam holes. Blue heron stand, statue-like. A herd of seals barks in the distance.
The next 3 ½ hours will be a frenzy before it’s time to “float off the farm again.”
Dewey likens shellfish farming to farming on land. During incoming tides, clam “seeds” (3-millimeter baby clams grown in Kona, Hawaii) are scattered over the nets by hand. They mature after three years, with periodic net maintenance and sweeping to protect against suffocating weeds. After harvesting, the clams are purged, packaged and transported all over the country.
When he isn’t busy chasing low tides, Dewey works as public policy and communications director for Taylor Shellfish Company in Shelton. Since 1986, he’s taken an active role shaping local, state and federal public policy as it affects the shellfish-culture industry. He serves on eight boards and, in 2008, was named an “Environmental Hero” by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Runoff from nearby farms, lawns, septic tanks and storm drains is not the only problem threatening Northwest clam farmers. China, which leads the world in aquaculture, boasts a plentiful and cheap supply of farmed, precooked clams.
Nonetheless, Manila clams are valued — both because their natural filtering system helps keep local waters clean and because, of course, they’re good to eat. Low in fat, carbohydrates and calories but high in protein, vitamins and minerals, Manila clams are versatile, too — perfect for steaming, roasting, sautéing, baking or stir-frying.
All of that is why Dewey thinks clam farming is so special to him and his family. “It’s very satisfying,” he says, “being able to work in such a remarkably beautiful place, growing a healthy and delicious food for people to enjoy, that cleans the environment as it grows.”
Braiden Rex-Johnson is a Seattle-based cookbook author, food and wine columnist and blogger. Visit her online at www.WithBraiden.com.
Manila Clam Steamers
Serves 4 as an appetizer, 2 as a main dish
1/2 cup (1 stick) salted butter
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 white or yellow onion, chopped
3 celery stalks, chopped
1 cup dry white wine
Juice of one fresh lemon
2 pounds fresh Manila clams, rinsed and scrubbed
1 to 1 ½ tablespoons dried Italian seasoning, crumbled
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf or curly parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
Crusty bread, for dunking
1. In a large saucepan or stockpot (with a cover), heat the butter over medium heat. Add the garlic, onion and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, 7 to 10 minutes.
2. Add the wine and lemon juice, stir well and bring back to a simmer.
3. Add the clams, stir well, cover the pan and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the clams open, 8 to 10 minutes.
4. Add 1 tablespoon of the Italian seasoning and the fresh parsley and stir well. Season to taste with salt and pepper and the remaining Italian seasoning, if needed.
5. Divide the clams and broth among bowls and serve with the bread.
— Taylor Shellfish Co.