University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives

Rural Cooperatives, March/April 1998, pp. 18-19
Published by the Rural Business and Cooperative Development Service

Out of the Crab's Claw

Women's crab meat co-op helps revive economy of Chesapeake Bay island

Editor's note: This article updates one that first appeared in the November 1995 issue of Farmer Cooperatives.

Five years ago, the hardy people of Tylerton, Md., were struggling to preserve a way of life that for generations has revolved around the harvesting of the sea.

    Crabbing and fishing-the only industries in this village of 75 people on Smith Island in Chesapeake Bay-had fallen on hard times. Sea catches had been falling, with many aquatic species virtually disappearing from local waters.

    Furthermore, Maryland's tough new crabbing regulations were making it even harder for Tylerton's watermen to stay in business.

    These were difficulties that affected the women of Smith Island as well.

    The island's primary source of income was the soft-shell crab harvest. While soft-shell crabs-caught in smaller numbers along with the hard-shell crabs-are sold whole, the watermen have always turned over hard-shell crabs to their wives, who pick and pack the meat for sale to the mainland. The women traditionally did this job in their own work sheds, usually located behind their homes.

    Crab picking provided an important source of supplemental income. Most island families could not survive without this money.

    Then, in 1993, state health inspectors threatened to shut down Tylerton's crab meat picking industry if a modern picking facility wasn't opened by the summer of 1996. Although Tylerton's crab meat was considered premium quality and got high marks from the health department, the little pickinghouses didn't meet state standards for commercial seafood processing facilities.

    Many saw the state's demands as a giant nail in Tylerton's coffin.

    To save their crab-picking industry, women of the island formed a cooperative in 1993. After a three-year struggle, Smith Island Crab Meat Cooperative Inc. secured funding for a new picking and packing facility. In all, they raised $283,000.

    "We formed this co-op because we saw our way of life and our livelihood being lost," co-op member Tina Corbin said, in 1995. "If women can't find a way to work and pull in that income for their families, then Tylerton and part of Smith Island is going to cease to exist. I don't want to see it go. I will do all I can to see that this coop succeeds. I'm willing to give 110 percent."

Co-op Success

    Today, the co-op's picking and packing facility is in its third season of operation. It's a licensed, state-of-the-art building. Completed in 1996, the building houses stainless steel tables and counter tops, ice machines, cement floors, scrubbable walls and ceilings, and proper storage facilities. Crabs are also steamed under pressure, as required by state laws. Indeed, there have been no fines levied against the co-op or its crab meat.

    "We did what the health department said," says current co-op president Betty Marshall.

    Since its first year in the facility, the coop has operated without any debt other than the bank note for the building and its regular monthly bills, says Janice Marshall, co-op founder and first president.

    In 1996, co-op members produced 14,000 pounds of crab meat. In 1997, they sold 19,000 pounds. This year, they hope to do as well or better.

    "We've got 15 women working together and all is going well," Betty Marshall says. "That was a big change since most of them were used to working on their own."

    Adds past-president Janice Marshall, "We have faith in the Lord for giving us the wisdom to deal in the business world but more importantly, to deal with each other."

    The co-op has buyers for the crab meat even before it's picked. Rusty Rudder, a restaurant in Dewey Beach, Del., buys most of the coop's output. The crab meat sells for $13 a pound, which is considered a good price.

    "We pride ourselves on handling our own product," Janice Marshall says. "My name is on that crab meat container, so I make sure my product is clean, fresh and free of shells."

    The co-op also employs three "steamers" who work during the 20-week season that runs from late June through November.

    A big chunk of financing for the co-op's new facility was provided in 1995 by $155,000 in grants and repayable loans from USDA Rural Development. The coop secured another $45,000 in other grants, loans and member investments. It also received $83,000 from the State of Maryland. There have been no more grants or loans since then.

    "We've been able to keep going on our own," Janice Marshall says. "I believe we must be one of the smallest co-ops in existence but we provide one of the best products any co-op of producers has on the market today."

A Change for the Good

    In many ways, Tylerton has changed little since the co-op was formed in 1993. There are still no cars or roads in the township, only paved footpaths. The only access to the mainland is a 35-minute boat ride. There still aren't many tourists. And there's little likelihood that the island's population will grow, so the co-op's membership is not expected to increase.

    But in other ways, Tylerton has seen significant changes since the women formed their co-opt There's now a bed and breakfast inn on the island that attracts a few visitors. The Save The Bay Foundation brings out mainland school children
to visit the island's salt marshes as well as the crab picking operations. In fact, the co-op's picking facility has two large viewing windows for observers to see what goes on inside.

    The co-op also is going into the T-shirt business. It will soon be selling T-shirts that show a crab with a picking knife in hand. "The back shell of a crab looks like a lip," says Janice Marshall. "So the T-shirt logo will say: 'Smith Island Co-op Crab Meat Is Lip Smacking Good."'

    Because of the long off-season, co-op members are looking for other business possibilities as well.

    The 15 members pay $200 a year to belong to the co-opt They also pay $2 for each plastic container and lid that holds the finished crab meat. There are seven directors on the board who meet once a month. They no longer meet in a church basement but in the co-op's office inside the picking facility. Members take turns handling the bookkeeping and building clean-up.

    And the oyster season this year showed an improvement over previous years, which has helped the local economy. The fishing and crabbing businesses still flow through hard times, but husbands have come to depend on their wives' incomes through the co-opt

    "I'm proud Tylerton has this kind of pickinghouse," says Janice Marshall. "It gives the women a chance to get together each day, like going to a regular job. It not only gives them a feeling of independence but the knowledge they're helping out the family."

    She adds, "This small co-op of women is combining the basics of business and an excellent product into a success we never expected."

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