Imagine, if you will, an oyster farm.
Seriously. Take a moment and picture it. If you’ve never seen an oyster farm, I can give you a few visual cues. A sandbar at low tide. Flat wire mesh cages, held up on legs, filled with oysters of various sizes. People, kneeling at the trays, measuring and sorting.
Okay, now let me ask you a question. In that picture in your mind’s eye, what’s the weather? Is it warm and sunny? Maybe cool and overcast?
What are the oyster farmers wearing? Shorts and t-shirts? Waders?
Whatever it was you imagined, it’s accurate at least some of the time. On a beautiful day in August, when we’re out there in shorts, oyster farming is an excellent job. On a calm, cool, September day, it’s still good – perfect weather for physical work. But did you picture a sub-freezing, howling January day, with oyster farmers wearing float coats and balaclavas? On a day like that, oyster farming has less going for it. Unfortunately, January is when a lot of the work has to happen.
We started selling oysters back in September, and have been making deliveries to our wholesaler in New York, W&T Seafood, every week since. January, though, is when we wind things down.
We grow our oysters in Barnstable Harbor, on intertidal flats that are about eight feet under water at high tide, but dry at low tide. It is that big tide, in part, that’s responsible for the excellent oystering conditions. Twice a day, nutrient-rich water flows into the harbor and around the oysters, insuring regular meals.
But, come winter, intertidal areas in cold climates are dangerous places. Once ice forms in the harbor, the tide is like a game of musical chairs. While the water’s in, the ice floes float, moving with the current. But, when the water goes out, it drops the ice wherever it happens to be. If where it happens to be is directly above your oystering equipment, you’re in for some serious damage.
And that’s why January finds all of us who grow oysters in the harbor bringing in our equipment. Although the oysters themselves have a good chance of surviving – if they freeze, they die only if they’re moved around – the equipment doesn’t fare so well.
It takes two seasons to grow an oyster out to three inches, which is the legal minimum in Massachusetts, so we have two years’ worth of crop on the farm. The seed we got this spring is between an inch and two inches, and that all comes out of the water, gets put in onion bags, and overwinters in a cooler, where it will stay dormant until we put it back in the water in April. The seed we got last year is what we’ve been selling, but we have about seven or eight thousand oysters that didn’t quite make it. Those, we’re going to leave out in the harbor and take our chances. The seed and the cages, though, have to come in.
We started this process back in December, by going through each tray, throwing out whatever we can’t sell, and selling whatever we can. As our inventory drops, we consolidate the cages and bring in the empties. The seed, though, we want to leave out as long as we can, because it continues to grow at least a little.
Which is why it was still out the first week in January, when we had a short cold spell. We were grounded for two or three days and, when we went back out, on January 8th, there it was. Ice. Bergs of it, scattered throughout the harbor. One landed on a clam bed near us, and we went over to get a closer look. It was about fifty feet by twenty, and four feet high. The time to get the seed in was obviously last week.
If the iceberg landed on our equipment, and we lost fifty trays and a few thousand oysters, it wouldn’t be a catastrophic loss. It would set us back, certainly, but it wouldn’t put us out of business. If, however, we lost all of next year’s crop, it would be difficult – and expensive – to bounce back.
We couldn’t bring the seed in the first day we saw the ice because we needed at least a day to line up the logistics. So we kept our fingers crossed that night, and went out the following day to get the job done. Luckily, the icebergs spared us; we had a full tide – about three hours – to both put that week’s delivery together and get our bags of seed from the farm to the dock.
The seed weighed about 1200 pounds, divided into 160 onion bags. Our oyster boat, once it has Kevin and me in it, can’t safely take that much, so we had to make two trips. Near the end of the tide, as the water was coming back in, we loaded half the seed and headed in. We unloaded it into the truck, and then zipped back and did the other half.
From there, we took it to the cooler – a refrigerated shipping container we share space in – and piled it on two pallets. We both a had a sense of relief when we closed the door of the cooler, knowing our oysters were in for the winter.
It’s not often that I feel genuine physical exhaustion. We’d transferred 1200 pounds of oyster seed three times – farm to boat, boat to truck, truck to cooler – and that after we’d spent three hours carrying, counting, sorting, and bagging many hundreds of pounds of full-grown oysters. My upper body was so depleted I could barely close the truck’s tailgate.
God it felt good. To spend a day doing hard physical work in the service of producing a healthful, nutritious food that people enjoy, still feels remarkable to me, three years in. It’s gratifying. It’s constructive. It makes me feel like a farmer.
Our season this year wasn’t more than so-so. We had significant death early in the year, and our crop was small. But we were still able to supply many thousands of oysters to New York restaurants, and we like the thought that they fed many hundreds of people. Fed them well.
We’ve still got a couple of tides’ worth of work to get everything cleaned up, but we made our last delivery of the season today. It made me feel like a farmer.
AN OYSTER ASIDE:
January is a very good month for oysters – they’re fat and sweet and delicious. If you happen to eat so many that you get tired of eating them raw, my friend Chef John at Food Wishes has a version of Oysters Rockefeller that even a purist could love (i.e. no bacon, no cheese).
Now, Chef John knows how to cook. His recipes always work, and his videos are descriptive, clear, and concise. He’s always winning awards and things. But, when it came to showing his readers how to shuck an oyster, he turned to his friend the oyster farmer. Glad to be of service!