When Oysters Come into the Classroom

By Mary Dempsey

Like many adjunct professors at University of Maryland University College (UMUC), Daniel Grosse uses his “other” job to inform his teaching. For this faculty member in the Graduate Program in Environmental Management, however, that second job is not what students might expect.

Grosse operates an oyster farm.

It sounds like a big jump for a man who was born in Los Angeles and spent much of his youth in oyster-less Michigan. But, then again, maybe oyster farming was a natural destination for a marine biologist who was also interested in farming.

Before aquaculture, Grosse was engaged in dirt farming, first with cotton and dates on collective farms in Israel and then on a Native American farming initiative in Arizona. “I got involved in a dirt-farming development project with the Hopis,” Grosse said. “It was high-tech, commercially viable dirt farming as a way of keeping young Hopis from leaving their culture.”

The project caught the attention of personnel at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which was interested in encouraging oyster farms on Smith Island and Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay. Wild oyster harvesting was a local tradition among the islanders, who trace their roots to settlers who arrived in the 1600s. But the Maryland Department of Natural Resources wanted to introduce farm-raised oystering—in which hatchery-bred oysters are suspended in cages underwater—to diversify the Islanders’ economic base and to restore wild oyster populations.

So it recruited Grosse.

After being tapped as an environmental consultant on other oyster-farming projects, his interest in the field grew and soon Grosse had his own oyster garden and then, with two partners, a full-fledged, if boutique, oyster farm. Today that operation, Toby Bay Island Oyster Farm on Chincoteague Island, Virginia, supplies sustainably raised oysters to farmers markets in the greater Washington metro area.

In 2006, Grosse began teaching online courses in UMUC’s graduate program in environmental management. Unobtrusively, oysters began to work their way into the classes. “In the course I’ve taught the longest, Fundamentals of Environmental Systems, students are sometimes given a test question about oysters,” acknowledged Grosse, who also has a contract with the fisheries service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “We look at oysters not just as a farm product but through the lens of the environment the oysters inhabit.”

Oyster farms are growing in popularity in the United States not only because of the “eat local” and farm-to-table food movements but because of their ability to filter plankton that thrive on excess nutrients and make waterways cleaner.

Robert Ouellette, chair of the Environmental Management Program, said all 12 of the adjunct professors in his program are practitioners in the environmental field and their insight strengthens students’ knowledge. “Most of our students are looking for a promotion, to switch jobs or to start their own companies. They want to know the state of the industry,” Ouellette said. “Practitioners who have years of experience can help separate the truth from fantasy.”

Ouellette said the Environmental Management Program, which launched two decades ago, has started leveraging online resources to link students to insider information. “Two or three times a week we provide all our teachers with what’s happening: meeting reports, conferences and job openings,” he explained. “They then email that to the students.”

Most of the program’s students are professionals in environmental fields, but in narrowly specialized areas; about 20 percent are from outside the discipline. All of them need a broad picture of the field, Ouellette said, and he described Grosse as “one of the best teachers” to provide that.

About the Author: Mary A. Dempsey is a D.C.-based writer and editor who began her career as a wire service reporter. She has worked as an editor at newspapers and magazines in the United States and Latin America.