As a consumer who enjoys eating a wide variety of fine food, I always relish the opportunity to learn more about where it comes from, how it’s grown and the men and women who provide such feasts for our dinner plates.

As a consumer who enjoys eating a wide variety of fine food, I always relish the opportunity to learn more about where it comes from, how it’s grown and the men and women who provide such feasts for our dinner plates.

I enjoyed just such an experience last week when I traveled to the Virginia coast and spent four days eating every clam, oyster, blue crab, shrimp and some of the finest seafood in the land.

Heck, I didn’t eat anything but bivalves and fish until the last night I was in Virginia.

That’s when I was forced to eat a juicy filet mignon to prep my land legs for back home and the wonderful pork, lamb and beef our Kansas farmers and ranchers raise.   
Incidentally, bivalves (clams) have a shell consisting of two asymmetrically rounded halves called valves that are mirror images of each other, joined at one edge by a flexible ligament called the hinge.

I devour at least a dozen raw oysters a day whenever I’m on the coast. This tradition started for me 40 years ago when I went to Florida the first while serving in the U.S. Army. I enjoyed my share of oysters during this trip as well. I also ate large quantities of littlenecks and middlenecks – the stuff great clambakes are made of.

The difference from previous visits to Virginia’s Eastern Shores, the clams we ate this time were raised in a controlled environment from conception to cultivation. That’s right, clam farmers are providing these tasty treats to much of this country’s restaurants and groceries.

On this visit I had the opportunity to visit Cherrystone Aqua Farms. This farm provides 85-million clams each year. There are times when 1-million clams are shipped out of the Northampton County facility in a single day.

“Our farm enables us to harvest clams year-round,” Ron Crumb, vice-president of Cherrystone Aqua Farms told us on the tour.

That makes the company happy as a clam to know its customers are eating fresh, consistent quality bivalves. Cherrystone is one of the largest producers of aquaculture clams in the United States. Today it’s part of Ballard Fish and Oyster Co., Inc. a seafood company that’s been around since 1895.

The clams are grown in the high salinity waters of their namesake, Cherrystone Creek. Cherrystone clams are grown in the ocean-flushed waters around the Eastern Shore.

Bivalves begin life onsite in a hatchery. Workers at the plant bring adult clams into a building and place them in 66-degree water that is ideal for spawning.

After the eggs are fertilized, they are placed in containers of algae-rich water. Some of these six-foot tall tanks are brown, forest green, lime green – they look like a modern-day Frankenstein laboratory.

The larvae are microscopic and look like granules of sand. After they grow bigger, about the size of a pencil eraser, they are moved into trays of sand in shallow-water beds for approximately three months.

It takes a clam 2 1/2 to 3 years to grow from egg to market size. Once harvested, clams and oysters are immediately cleaned, packed, refrigerated and shipped fresh all across our country. Littlenecks at Cherrystone are shipped out within 24 hours of being harvested. They’re sold to wholesalers fresh, live and in the shell.

Like an increasing number of food producers today, littleneck clams from Cherrystone Aqua Farms are grown without the use of antibiotics, steroids or other feed additives.

Believe me, after eating several dozen of these tasty morsels last week, littleneck clams could certainly be considered one of the perfect foods. High-protein, low-calorie, lip smackin’ delicious these little babies weigh in at only 100 calories per serving (12 clams).

Littlenecks have special oils rich in omega-3 and fatty acids – all good for us. Now that I realize I can buy these locally, fresh and alive, I’ll definitely eat more of them. After all, it’s easy to substitute clams for other protein foods in stir-fry dishes, salads, soups and pasta recipes.

Clams with garlic, olive oil and a squirt of lemon anyone?

John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.