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PROFILE: Photographer Meta Mesdag Fulfills Her Dream of Building a Family Oyster Farm

Established Community Backer ***
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Meta and her family in Juneau, Alaska 

Name: Meta Mesdag
Business: Salty Lady Seafood Co.  
Location: Juneau, Alaska
Launched:  April 2018

Meta Mesdag is a mom of three in Juneau, Alaska. Wanting to be available to her kids, Meta has opened two successful small businesses out of her home. Although both ventures have kept her super busy, Meta decided earlier this year to start a family “mariculture” business -- an ocean farm where she, her husband and kids will grow (and then sell) oysters, clams, mussels and kelp, all of them working together.

Did Meta know anything about mariculture when she dreamt up the idea? No. Did that stop her from starting it up? Absolutely not. Here, at the very beginning of her new business journey, she tells us about the challenge of launching her business and how she persevered despite strict regulations -- and some very heavy concrete anchors. Meta has no doubt that she’ll be successful as a mariculture entrepreneur. After meeting this determined, high-energy woman, neither do we!

 

Hi Meta! Tell us about your brand new business.

Salty Lady Seafood Co is a micro-scale, mariculture family farm in Juneau. We cultivate oysters and are in the process of growing kelp, as well. In the next year or two we will hopefully have mussels and clams growing, too.

How did you end up owning and running an oyster farm?

I currently have a photography business which takes a lot of time away from my kids. They are all fairly young, and they still want to hang out with my husband and me! This spring I started talking to my husband, Alec, about creating a new kind of family-friendly business model. I’ve always thought the ideal business would be all of us together, outside and on the water. Alec is involved in the local Economic Development Council, and he immediately said, “Meta, you need to start a farm. Mariculture is on the rise. It’s the number one greatest economic opportunity for our state -- and you are really good at growing stuff!”

 

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Kids help with "planting" oyster seeds and snapping the growing bags onto the line

 

So how do you go from a good idea to actually growing oysters in the ocean?

We began by researching the current market. We learned about the key players and laws and figured out what our capital investment would be in order for us to succeed. I met with the mariculture director of Alaska and with farmers from Alaska and across the country to learn as much as I could about the industry and the best options for mariculture in our region in Southeast Alaska. Next, it was time to find a site for our farm.

We pulled out nautical charts and started picking potential farm sites. We wanted a site that wasn’t too hard to access or too far from home since the whole idea was about family togetherness. We identified and submitted our site picks to the mariculture director, and every single one of them got rejected for various reasons -- too close to other farms, on state park land, too near a wastewater facility. I really started banging my head on a wall after the sixth site rejection.

That’s when I got an email from a guy who owned an existing farm. The site was undeveloped, and his plan of cultivating geoduck clams wasn’t working out. We visited the site and, when we viewed it from the beach, I could immediately see it was perfect. The owner transferred his lease to us, and all the doors started to open. We were back in business!

 

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The farm site in Juneau, AK

 

You’ve never operated an oyster farm before. Why did you believe you could succeed at this type of venture?

I believe that there’s no better time than now to start something new. The human brain is crazy malleable and ready to learn. You just have to feed it knowledge, and then you have all the power you need to succeed.

I think my formidable tenacity is what kept me from throwing in the towel when most people would have given up during these very difficult start-up months. Building a farm in Alaska can take years. State regulators are overworked, and the statutes guiding the growth and development of the mariculture industry are fairly new and still undefined.

Plus, we had to place four massive anchors that weighed-in at four-and-a-half tons onto the seafloor to support the farm. This huge foundational effort took an army of people, including a ferry captain, a backhoe operator, a barge and family members with boats. We spent hours chasing the tide to set the anchors in place. It was dangerous and grueling work, but, with a lot of determination and planning, we got them situated without a scratch.

That sounds really hard! How did you deal mentally with such difficult physical and bureaucratic requirements?

Compared with securing the farm site and laying the anchor foundations, everything else has seemed relatively easy! I could not have accomplished those major things without the help of folks who believe in me. Once the doors started to open for us in business, I decided I needed to work from faith so I could manage the stresses ahead. I had to trust that what was meant to be would be. Things that were not meant to be I would gladly let go of.  

What drives me and keeps me focused is the desire to create a business for my family. I’m providing my kids with the opportunity to grow up in Alaska, with all of us working together to provide sustainably grown seafood for our community.

 

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Meta's youngest child and inspiration for the company logo

 

That’s so cool, Meta. It sounds like you have a very clear dream. What is your hope for the future of your business?

My hope is that we grow a successful business that gives our family an opportunity to work and play together. Ideally, the lines will blend between work and play! One of my main objectives in starting this farm is to help give my children greater opportunities and enough confidence to do what they love, on or off the farm.

If I play my cards right, my kids will go off to college with a strong sense of self and a solid work ethic. The dream is that they will have a fruitful family business to come home to in the summers. That way, we can all work together in Juneau with the people we love, doing what we love while also doing something great for our community.   

I can almost picture it! Will you keep us posted on your progress, please?

Absolutely!

 

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QB Community members, what keeps you going when you come up against huge obstacles in operating your business?

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1 Comment
Community Contributor *

Wishing you the best of luck!  My husband is an oyster aficionado - I am not (I am trying!), but I grew up in the Puget Sound collecting oyster shells, and picking up oysters on our local beaches. We spend a ton of time chasing oysters up and down our Pacific Coast; including many many visits to Hog Island and Taylor Shellfish in Shelton.  

Caron