The year in oysters

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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.

Got it?

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.

Winter gear

Winter gear

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.

kevin and icebergIf 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 only ice we got

The only ice we got

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.

Truck bed full of oyster seed

Truck bed full of oyster seed

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!

If it’s good enough for Chef John, it’s good enough for me.  So here, courtesy of Sky Sabin Productions and Relish magazine, is how I shuck an oyster.

Starving Off The Land, How To Shuck An Oyster from Sky Sabin Productions on Vimeo.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Accidental Mick says:

    Just being nosy again. When you were in the path of the hurricane and posted the damage you received, you mentioned that you wouldn’t know if the oysters had suffered until later. Do you think they did suffer or did they escape.

  2. Tamar, you are brilliant on camera! I know you have a full plate, but you really should do more how-to videos.

  3. Mermaid Select Oysters says:

    Enjoy your blogs. How long do the oysters store in the cooler?

  4. Mick — We got very lucky with Sandy. We had some oysters spill out of their cages, but that was the extent of it. Whew!

    Laura — You can come here any time! Thanks. I actually enjoy doing videos, but it requires a lot of logistical stuff and the time and talent of my A1 video guy, Sky Sabin. I do hope to do more.

    Mermaid — Our seed will be in the cooler until April, in all likelihood. If you buy oysters, and want to simply store them in the fridge, they will not only stay alive, but still taste good, for weeks. Put them in a bowl, cup side down, covered with a damp cloth. But, since you have ‘Oysters’ in your name, I’m betting you already knew that!

  5. How very interesting – and what a contrast to recent news here in Tasmania where oyster farmers have been affected by wildfires. Some farmers lost a lot of equipment and now many are concerned about the effects off polluting runoff if it rains. hhttp://www.abc.net.au/rural/tas/content/2013/01/s3665898.htm One good story was the saving of the business that supplies most of the spat to hundreds of oyster farmers all over the south-east coast of Australia – or there’d be nothing to grow next season. http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2013/s3671092.htm
    Who’d be farmer? More power to you!

  6. Okay- it’s official. You’re adorable on camera.

    And you are a farmer.

  7. I enjoy following your journey in first hand food, Being a mollusk-phile myself I especially enjoy your oyster farming. Bravo on the video, I gave you a standing ovation, Kind of a silly thing to do when you all by yourself in the kitchen having a cup of coffee. Eh.

  8. Thank you very much for the video. I really wish I’d seen it last year before I did the ouch thing to my hand. Better late than never. Now there will be a next time for preparing oysters myself.

  9. Tassie — we’ve been following the wildfires down there, but I didn’t know about the oysters. I’m glad the hatchery was spared, and I hope things ease up for you. We’re thinking of you.

    Paula — Adorable, eh? It’s not every day someone calls me that. Appreciate it.

    Rick — I know you could shuck oysters with your eyes closed (although, in general, I don’t recommend it). I do love your enthusiasm for all things bivalve.

    Jean — You made my day! I’m very sorry about the ouch thing (I know that injury very well), but I’m delighted you’re getting back on the horse.

  10. Fascinating. I love oysters but knew nothing about their farming. Now I know a tiny bit. Our farming in the mountains, far in land, has the same variety. The warm seasons are very pleasant but come winter things get about five times harder, everything takes longer but we have to keep farrowing (birthing) piglets year round and growing the pigs year round out on our pastures in winter paddocks because customers want food year round. The pigs that are born now (~30 in the last two days) will be the ones who go to market in the summer. Fortunately our production cycle is only ten months (breed to market) rather than your two years.

  11. Best instruction on oyster shucking I’ve ever seen. Made me hungry, again. I also considewr you a fellow farmer. Aquaculture IS farming.

  12. Walter, we’ve found that the operative word in ‘oyster farm’ is farm. What we do shares so many of the same risks, difficulties, and pleasures as land-based agriculture. I suspect that, on a nice day in June, the feeling we get out among our oysters, checking their status and maintaining the infrastructure, is very similar to the one you get out among your pigs, checking their status and maintaining the infrastructure. In February, though, you have it a lot tougher. We’re buttoned up for the season, and you’re out there in frigid Vermont weather keeping everything going.

    Greg — It absolutely is. The reason I don’t feel like a “real” farmer is that we grow oysters only part time. Real farmers are out there every day, in every season. And my hat’s off to them.

  13. I forgot to mention that I love Chef John’s videos. I dream about that Oyster Rockefeller video!

  14. Funny, despite being a capable oyster shucker for many years, never did the flip thing at the end to pretty the presentation. Another new trick for this old dog. Thanks!

  15. That was one big ice floe you had near your trays.
    So are you getting ready for the next snow storm this weekeind?

  16. Dianne — It’s a good trick, no? Covers a multitude of sins.

    Henry — We are all buttoned up for the year, so all we can do at this point is hope. We’ve still got a few oysters out there, as a kind of experiment in weather-resistance. I’ll report back in the spring.

  17. Nice blog, thanks. It’s the only place on the English-speaking web that tells you how many seasons it takes to grow an oyster. Wikipedia doesn’t have it (yet). We ate lovely oysters in Wimereux, France yesterday evening.

    • Hi Simon — It’s a key bit of information, isn’t it? But one of the reasons you might have had trouble finding it is that it varies significantly, depending on a lot of things, but primarily water temperature and nutrient-density. Where we are, it’s two seasons. Farther south, farmers can grow oysters out in one. Farther north, it takes longer. In the cold waters off Canada, it can take five years, or even longer.

      Any way you slice it, there are plenty of places in the world that grow wonderful oysters. I hope some day I get to Wimereaux to try theirs.

  18. this post answered my other question… :)

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