Richard Blakeley has been growing clams and oysters on the Wellfleet flats since the 1980s. A year ago, he spoke of slowing down, perhaps even getting ready to pass the torch to a younger generation of shellfish growers. But last summer, he seemed glad to be out on his farm. The trip, he says, isn’t over. It’s still offering gifts he might not have imagined. Here’s Richard in his own words.
I’ve run over a few tides in my lifetime. So, I’m pretty broke up. My hands are arthritic. My back is arthritic, but I want to keep moving. Gotta keep moving.
I started fishing in the mid ’70s, because that’s what young kids did around here. New Bedford was all union. You couldn’t get on a union boat unless you had a job. You couldn’t get a job on a boat without a union card. So, you had to be there when they were throwing the lines, and somebody had to miss the boat, and they needed a warm body. That’s how you got your card.
A lot of New Bedford fishermen would take the winter off, because it’s miserable. So, the Cape boys would all charge up there and take the jobs. We weren’t too smart! But that’s what you did.
I fished for about 15 years. And then I came home. Wellfleet boys are never far from Wellfleet. In the early 80s, maybe, they were starting to do aquaculture. So, I decided I’d give that a shot. And it was very good at first, a lot better than it is now. At the time, there was a lot of growth. There was very little disease. I’d say it was the heyday. It was a little bit like the Gold Rush, yeah.
It was a good time to grow clams. It should have stayed that way, too. Those damn oysters. They’re heartbreakers. I’m the kind of person that if I start looking into what’s killing my shellfish, I’d never last. When I get up at two o’clock in the morning, I don’t want to know what the disease is that’s killing my shellfish. All I know is there’s a disease killing my shellfish. That’s good enough, or bad enough. It’s difficult to see your crop die, because your clam runs are paved with dead shells. They come to the surface and die, and it’s horrible.
My farm is in pretty good shape. I don’t know about the farmer! I’ve got help. I just put my grant in a younger person’s name, and I’m happy to see that my partner wants to grow a lot of shellfish, and that makes me want to grow more shellfish. Unfortunately, I just don’t have the market with everything shut down.
The market is just crazy for littlenecks, but not so much for oysters. If you take a ride downtown New York City, there’s a lot of restaurants that are shut down. And it’s like that down South and all over. There are 50 million people out of work. I’m selling a handful of oysters, but only about a quarter of what I did last year.
Sometimes you think, we’re a dying breed. That may be true, that may be true. We have our bumps in the road, but we’re okay.
It’s a wonderful thing to see younger people involved in the business that you’re in. The younger people today are educated, and they are very competent people. And it’s good. That breaks me up a little bit. They want to entrust this to their children, their little boys and girls. They want to turn over the harbor to them. And when you have that, you can’t go wrong.
I’m not so sure about this aging thing. I’m still moving, just moving a little slower. I did something a little bit different last week, planting clams, and it worked out fantastically. I didn’t realize that I would get such a kick out of that, but I did! If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t have those kind of feelings. My tank might be emptying, but it ain’t on empty yet.
[Richard’s neighbor on the flats is Barbara Austin.] Barbara is always going to be there. So, I told Barbara once, “Barb, you’re never going to be able to divorce me! I’m always going to be right here.” Seeing her son Clinton with his sons. It’s an incredible feeling. I love that. Without shellfishing and aquaculture, I wouldn’t have had that. I wouldn’t have the closeness I have with the younger kids. I call ’em kids. They are grown men with wives and families. They’ve completed my life. They really have. It’s been a wonderful trip. I’m going to see it roll on a little bit longer, it looks like.