Going pro

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I have news.

After two years of procuring our own food on a strictly amateur basis, Kevin and I are turning professional. We’ve gotten an aquaculture grant – the lease of a little over an acre for our exclusive use – in Barnstable’s West Bay, and we’re going into the oyster business.

Oyster farming on the flats of Barnstable Harbor

The first time we drove down the driveway with our real estate agent to look at what is now our house, about three years ago, that wasn’t our plan.

Our plan was to buy a summer house. But that was before the financial upheaval that began in 2007 and got serious in 2008. A few months after we closed on the house, in March of 2008, we realized that it wasn’t the time to take on the burden of two homes. We put our Manhattan apartment on the block that summer, and we were in escrow in September of 2008, when the American financial system came to the brink of meltdown.

Kevin’s been a commodity trader his entire career, and there were changes in the commodity markets, unrelated to the financial crisis, that meant that the kind of trading he did might no longer be viable. He was an open-outcry trader, the kind that stood on the floor of the exchange, yelling and gesturing. The products he traded, primarily coffee and crude oil futures, were increasingly being traded electronically, and the trading floor was being phased out.

Electronic trading is a different animal from open-outcry trading, and most individual traders making the transition found it to be an inhospitable platform for what they did. Kevin was no exception, and he gradually wound down his operation until he stopped trading altogether earlier this year.

It was brutally difficult for him. Being a trader was a part of his identity. It was what he did every working day of his adult life. It was how he’d made his circle of friends. It was fundamental to him. Reimagining yourself at fifty is no easy task.

But Kevin’s always wanted to grow things.

When he was in fourth grade, in a Catholic school (from which he was eventually expelled for kissing a Jewish girl in the confessional), Sister Cora asked the students what they wanted to be when they grew up. As they went around the room, with each girl saying she wanted to be a teacher or a nurse and each boy saying he wanted to be a cop or a fireman, it occurred to Kevin that he didn’t really know what he wanted to be.

When Sister Cora got to him, he decided, on the spur of the moment. “I want to be a farmer,” he said.

Sister Cora looked at him, dubious. Kevin didn’t exactly have the reputation for being cooperative and ingenuous, and she suspected she was being made game of. “No you don’t,” was what she told him.

Well, if he hadn’t been quite decided about farming before, he certainly was then.

From our earliest days together, he’s talked about retiring to a farm, and he was the impetus behind our Manhattan rooftop garden. When we bought this house, one of the first things we did was choose a spot for the garden and clear the site. Those of you who follow this space know how he’s taken to the chickens and the turkeys and the bees (but especially the chickens).

In the course of my work, we’ve met a lot people involved in the food community here on Cape Cod. Several of them, including Florence and David Lowell (of the Naked Oyster) and Les Hemmila (of Barnstable Seafarms) grow oysters, and it was a business that appealed to Kevin.

That's me, oyster apprentice, shaking bags of babies

Over the summer, while our grant was in the works, he spent a lot of time out on the flats with Les, under whose tutelage he’s taken 100,000 oysters from the size of pinheads to the size of soup spoons.

The grant’s been officially ours for over a month now, but I didn’t want to tell you about it until all the paperwork was done, the i’s dotted and t’s crossed. Our grant has some limitations on the kind of gear we can use, so we’ll have to figure out how to proceed within those limits and it’ll be a while before we have a crop of oysters.

If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to put some stock out there to overwinter, but that depends on conditions and availability of the right kind of seed. Regardless, we’ll be ramping up in the spring.

I’ll be writing about it. About oysters, about how to grow them. About our experiments and our obstacles, our successes and failures. About becoming professional farmers. The thing is, though, that it doesn’t exactly fall under Starving’s purview. Although it’s certainly related, it’s a different kind of enterprise.

So here’s the question: Are you interested? If you’re here to read about the growing and gathering, fishing and hunting, I don’t want to trespass on your interest by telling you about oyster farming. I could do it on a separate site, affiliated with our oyster company. But if you are interested, I’ll do it here, as an adjunct to our ongoing amateur efforts. If you’ve got a moment, let me know what you think.

And wish us luck.

My husband, the oyster farmer

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Comments

  1. Take that… Sister Cora!

  2. having waited on pins and needles all summer for this result for you (though certainly less sharp than the ones under kevin) I am really so happy its all done and spoken for. and i can’t wait for you to overnight me a sample of your first oyster haul. 🙂 congrats.

    also, Kevin? its okay to yell and gesture wildly at the oysters. i can’t imagine they’ll take it badly.

  3. Tamar, I’m not only interested, I’m fascinated. Congratulations, good luck, and keep us regularly posted!

  4. Margaret Fisher says:

    Wow, this is big news. I’m hooked! Would love to hear more of EVERYTHING about oyster culture. Where are those lovely oyster beds located? Where do you buy seed oysters? What if a big blow comes? Are there predators? Do the oysters freeze in winter?

    Oh, and nah nah, Sister Cora. Who knew?

  5. I read, with interest and great amusement, everything you write on this blog – adding your oyster farming experiences can only increase the interest and amusement.

  6. Far from interfering with my enjoyment, I’d love to hear about this new phase of your life together! Congratulations to Kevin from the queen of self-reinvention. Tamar, there’s at least one or two solid books here. I’m sure you know that. Your writing makes me wish I could keep up with my RSS feed. Each and every time I do stop by here, I want more.

    So keep it up, you two. Seed and grow and nurture, yourselves and your oysters, while you feed us all.

  7. Oh hell yes write about it! I’m trying to remember where I saw a thing about multiculturing with oysters- probably PBS- but the guys doing it were growing some sort of seaweed with the oysters. Evidently the seaweed helps keep the waters clear, which you want, since oysters are filter feeders as you well know, and there is also quite a market for the seaweed. There was another crop aquacultured at the same time (sort of like an aqua-Three Sisters deal) but I can’t for the life of me remember what it was.

    Anyway, Kevin should be glad he was phased out. I once met a open-outcry trader who was dealing with throat cancer which his doctor believed to be a result of his profession, which may or may not be the case. And now he’s an oyster farmer, which I think is much, much cooler.

    Now, instead of starving off the land, you’ll be living off the water.

  8. I agree with everybody above. I’d love to hear about the oyster farm. Your smallholding is my alternative reality for a couple of minutes everyday.

  9. How exciting! I’m living on a few acres in southeast TN learning about growing and preserving my food too. I even have a few chickens that I just love…maybe not as much as Kevin loves his girls, but they are addictive. Love your blog and your wonderful sense of humor. I look forward to reading all about your oyster adventures and wish you guys the very best!

  10. Tamar and Kevin,
    Congratulations on your latest venture. It sounds very interesting and I think it makes sense to include this on Starving. I have to tell you that when Sam was little, he always said he wanted to be a scientist and a farmer. Maybe that’s why he’s one of your biggest fans!

  11. Wow, what a big step. I say blah-blah-blog (to use your description)! My husband and I take a yearly vacation up to Eugene, OR. On the way out we hit the coast and crab in Winchester Bay, OR. There is an oyster farm that you can see from the top of a cliff near a beautiful lighthouse. I have always wanted to go nose around (but it’s off limits). The idea of growing something like that is extremely interesting to me. Not to mention I’d never turn down eating more than my fill. I love your blog. You and Kevin are doing what I’ve always wanted to do after retiring up in OR with my husband. Best of luck.

  12. Are we interested? Hell yes, I’m interested. I’d love to read about your & Kevin’s oyster-farming pursuits here in addition to all the other activities you have to write about. And good luck with it all!

  13. Put the oyster farm stuff in with the Starving blog. I think you folks are doing well enough to just keep us up to date with the one blog. It’s not only fun to read the blog, it is inspiring in the sense of ‘other folks are doing this kind of thing, too. We really are not as alone or as far out on the fringe as we feel like we are sometimes. The oyster farm will only make this better.

  14. martha in mobile says:

    Really, it’s your writing style and your take on things that I come for. So you could write about cat poop if you wanted to and I would read it (but please don’t).

  15. I love the oyster project and want to read about it on this blog.

  16. This venture is about much more than oysters. Let’s hear it all.

  17. …beer and oysters…now we really do have to have that drink..to celebrate!

    We are SO THRILLED for you both! Congrats! Have been wondering, worrying..

    And yeah blog schmog..tell the world about your oysters darling!
    And tell your husband that it is heartwarming to me to know that there is yet another man living on this peninsula with us that has found and followed his dream. My husband should not be allowed to be the only one. It’s a small club..but the world gets better each time the membership increases!

    So are you NOW too BUSY to entertain?

  18. I’m totally fascinated by your new adventure in oyster farming. Please do blog about it!

  19. Marie Watkins says:

    I would really like to hear as much about the oysters as possible Knowledge is good.

  20. So I’m a vegetarian and haven’t had an oyster in 20 years, I’m still fairly sure that I would find your descriptions of oyster farming not only amusing but fascinating. Same way I feel about the fish & turkey. It’s really the massive life shift you have made that I love reading about and oyster farming just sounds like the next leap. Bring it on!

  21. Firstly, we missed you at Father Nelson’s dinner last week–but we heard you were fighting the good fight, and a few of us in secret raised a glass to you both. Going up against the town is as fun as building a fu**ing surrey–but you gotta do what you gotta do.
    Great blog this time–very powerful. I can feel the energy and excitement bouncing off your keyboard keys. Reinventing yourself after 50 (as you say about Kevin) IS courageous, but kind of a no-brainer for someone like Kevin. Didn’t he make his first mill when he was 17 or something?? You guys are chance takers. I don’t know all of your qualities (yet), but thus far that’s been my favorite.
    I would love to volunteer for 2 things, if I may. 1) is to put my hat in to do the story on you guys for Edible CC when the trumpet sounds. 2) is to offer my my helping hands any time you need a friend to kick in a bit of time or muscle. “Will work for oysters” my sign reads.
    Bravo to you both. I’m proud to be your friend. Looking forward to tasting the results.

  22. Lurker living in NYC (and living vicariously through you) here….definitely blog about your new oyster venture. I really love your site and look forward to hearing about your move into the oyster business.

  23. Wow…I’m jealous. My husband and I were keen to get an oyster lease here in Australia but the industry is very tight. I can’t wait to read your adventures. If only we were close enough to taste the results too. Good luck!

  24. I wake up each morning at 3am, trudge to work grab my coffee and sit down for a few minutes to see what you two are up to over there on the cape. I started reading on a side interest from an article I read when you were ramping up to get your bees (being a backyard beekeeper myself). Well I read that article and just kept on reading. So yes! I say please share your oyster adventures with us too. agriculture is agriculture to me, wether is enjoying your summer tomatoes, watching your turkeys grow or oyster farming. Its the satisfaction I have myself at the end of the day when I sit down to rest and notice the dirt under my fingernails, and knowing that dirt is a sign of satisfaction over doing something I really love to do. And I love to read about others that have found that little seed of joy in life.

  25. Thanks, all, for your enthusiasm and support! As we embark on an uncertain new venture — and any kind of farming is uncertain — it’s gratifying to hear the kind words and best wishes. It’s good to know you’re rooting for us, and that you want to follow along.

    So, oysters it is. Right alongside the chickens and turkeys, bees and mushrooms, fish and lobsters.

    More soon. Meanwhile, we’re FINALLY getting to the wood-fired oven.

  26. Speaking from the other side of the Pond, martha in mobile is so right. We read for your writing style and what you are up to. So if you are up to oysters, we want to read about it. Good luck!

  27. I second what everyone has said here. Ever since the Dreaded Broccoli days, I’ve loved reading anything you’ve written.

  28. Dear Ms. Haspel,

    I’m outraged that you’re considering the inclusion of oyster farming as a topic.

    I come here strictly to read about sea salt, root beer, horn worms, turkey IQ, lobstering, trailer welding, chicken cannibalism, pizza ovens, dandelion wine, and varmints. Please cancel my subscription, post haste.

    Just kidding. Of COURSE I’m interested. Who wouldn’t be?

  29. Bravo to both of you on this brave new venture. I love a great re-invention story and Kevin’s is truly inspiring.

  30. DEFINITELY looking forward to reading more about your oysterish endeavors.

  31. Wow – very exciting! And even though I can’t eat them (the merest whiff of shellfish has me searching for an epipen), I’d still be interested to read about your new venture.

  32. Tamar- Are you kidding? A good writer makes enjoyable reading no matter what the subject and so we look forward to future stories as you “bumble and stumble and tumble” into the fascinating world of oysters and aquaculture. And where else would we have learned of open-outcry traders while learning about oyster farming?

    And I say thank goodness for nay-sayers like Sister Cora!

    Congratulations to you and to Kevin on this exciting new aspect of your lives.

  33. Yes, I’m interested. And I wish when I was younger that I’d been listened to when I was as disbelieved as Kevin was with his response to what he wanted to be. I said chef, and was promptly told that the only good that would come of that would be a lifetime of flipping burgers in some fast food place. Given that the village I grew up in didn’t even have a fast food outlet that seemed unlikely. But I listened to the counsellor and didn’t pursue cooking. I have a small business on the side but I still wonder where I’d be if I’d forged ahead despite the advice.

  34. CONGRATULATIONS! And yes please keep writing about it! Can’t wait to hear (and see) more about it!

  35. Not that it seems totally necessary, but I’d like to add my vote to the “hell, yes” column. I enjoy reading about your adventures in food-procurement by whatever means. If you can manage to turn some of your effort into income-generation, so much the better. I’m just sorry I’m 3,000 miles (or so) away from the future harvests.

  36. Can’t wait to hear of your trials, tribulations, success, and advice! Best of luck – keep us posted!!!

  37. I cannot think of two people who deserve to succeed in this venture more then you.
    I wish you all the best and look forward to following your progress.
    Hope to see you soon!

  38. Tamar & Kevin – We are so thrilled to hear about your new venture (Sister Cora – bah!). I don’t know two more capable people than yourselves to make a success of your oyster farm. I don’t think I know anyone with a many diverse skills as you two have.

    I’m with Martha et al, whatever you write about is informative, witty, and worth reading. I can’t wait to learn more about oysters. Have you got a name for your farm?

  39. Heather Robinson says:

    You could write a phone book and I would read it.
    Good luck to you!

  40. Steve Rudnick says:

    Best luck to you! I look forward to reading about your adventures. Several members of my family are filter-feeding mollusks, and they are wonderful people, but problematic conversationalists. Oh well.
    Note to Kevin: … in the confessional? Awesome! Of course you will go to Hell for that, but you will have bragging rights when you get there.
    Best Regards,
    Steven

  41. Brilliant news Tamar and Kevin!

    Looking forward to reading all about oyster farming adventures. You write so well that you could make slug racing exciting…

  42. Tamar and Kevin…Congratulations! What an exciting venture and adventure! I can’t wait to hear all about it. Success and happiness to you both!

  43. I don’t know how I ended up reading your post about cultivating oysters, the web is a very open place I suppose… It all started with an attempt to make float trip plans with my brother in our home state of Missouri, which probably won’t happen because we’re both busy working and I haven’t had much time to spend in MO in years. Anyway, I relate to your husband’s childhood desire to “grow” and your support and musings on the web about it. I’m still working on talking my wife into a fruit orchard when I eventually retire, hopefully she will agree some day.
    Anyway, I became interested in cultivating oysters about 5 years ago when I took an unexpected job in SE Alaska for a while. I’ve eaten oysters in many locations around the USA, but my favorites by far were locally cultivated there, I think the cool pacific waters caused the oysters to generate more fat, which worked out just fine on the BBQ. I know that the seedlings had to be shipped, because the oysters didn’t reproduce in cooler climates. But I was ( and still am) interested in the business, as shrimp and oysters are my favorite foods to cook from the ocean. I’d be happy to hear more of your exploits.

    Best Regards,

    Pat Moon

  44. Congrats and best of luck on your oyster farm!!! Have you picked out a name for your farm?

  45. Gah! So exciting!! I’m with everyone on looking forward to hearing about the oyster farming venture. Your writing has just been beautiful and hilarious at the same time, btw. THANK YOU!