We’ve started harvesting oysters in earnest. Every Thursday we take a shipment to New Bedford, where it gets loaded on a refrigerated truck bound for New York. It lands at the Brooklyn Terminal Market, where our wholesaler picks it up.
We made the decision early on that we would keep our operation small. We want to be able to do all the work ourselves, and keep a close eye on every oyster. At the moment, as oyster farms go, we’re practically microscopic, with only 70,000 oysters from last year’s crop and another 100,000 seed from this year. We’d planned to add another 100,000 in June, but many of the hatcheries had problems with seed, and we couldn’t get our second batch. So we’ve got 170,000 animals, total, on the farm.
I know that sounds like a lot to anyone accustomed to ordering oysters by the dozen, but it’s nothing compared to the millions raised by our neighbors at Wianno Oyster, or even the 600,000 our friend Les has at Barnstable Seafarms.
But I spent a long time begin accustomed to ordering oysters by the dozen, so it still seems like a lot to me, too.
We handle each of those 170,000 several times during its lifetime, when we transfer it from spat bag to grow-out bag, from grow-out bag to bigger grow-out bag, from bigger grow-out bag to tray. But the most handle-intensive part of the whole process is the harvest.
All our mature oysters are in trays, but the nature of oysters is such that they don’t grow at exactly the same rate. Each tray can have up to 700 oysters (which is too many – we’re a little overcrowded), and they can range in size from about an inch and a half to the full, legal, three inches.
Our first step is to go tray by tray and pick out the biggest specimens. Those go in a tray of their own – the Gifted & Talented, my stepson Eamon calls them. Each time we go out, we try and winnow out the big oysters, both so we have them all in one place and so the smaller oysters left in the trays have a little more room to grow.
Then, on Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning, depending on the tide, we go out to fill the order. Last week, we had to pick 900 oysters.
I went through the trays, pulling 100 at a time. It was Kevin’s job to clean them, and he’d bought a pump for the purpose. The intake goes in the channel that runs alongside our farm, and doesn’t go dry at low tide. The pump sits in the boat, and the output comes out the other side of the boat, at pressure, through a garden hose. Kevin sat on a chair next to the boat, washing the sea schmutz off the oysters, one at a time.
When we were finished, we had nine onion bags, each with 101 oysters in it (we add an extra in case we miscount).
I am absurdly proud of each of those bags. Absurdly, because there’s a serious limit to the credit we can take. This is our very first crop, and it’s been a success (so far – anything could happen next week, or the week after) because our oyster-farming friends have been generous with their expertise, because conditions have been favorable, and only in small part because we’ve done our best.
Our wholesaler, who’s been selling oysters to Manhattan and Brooklyn restaurants for 25 years, told us ours were the best they’d ever had and I felt, for the first time, like a farmer.