The two busiest times of the oyster-growing year are spring, when we put our gear and seed out, and fall, when we take it in. Each has its satisfaction.
We finished buttoning up the farm in January, when we took in almost all our equipment. We left nine trays, densely packed with about 10,000 almost-legal oysters, to brave the winter. And brave it they did! We came back from our vacation to find them alive and well.
We’ve spent the last couple of weeks putting trays back out, which is time-consuming but not back-breaking work. We load the boat with some thirty trays, each three feet by four and five inches deep. At low tide, when the farm comes out of the water, we take the trays out, unload them, and start the time-consuming part: legs.
The trays have to be kept off the sand, both so water flows all around the oysters in the tray (thereby maximizing nutrient access), and so sand doesn’t get in. If the oysters get buried, they’ll die. There are lots of ways to keep oysters off the ground, and farmers around us use many of them. You can suspend them from posts that are more-or-less permanent, or you can build a kind of structure that the trays sit on. We put legs on trays.
There are also lots of ways to put legs on trays. The easiest way is to get someone else to do it for you. We get our trays from Myron, at Ketcham Trap, and we specify everything about them – size, liner, wire gauge. We could design them with legs, and Myron would be happy to make them for us. The problem is that they’d be more expensive, and more difficult to stack. That last part is important to us, since our boat, at 17 feet, is relatively small. Trays that don’t stack compactly add up to many extra trips out and back.
Which is not to say that it’s impossible to design tray legs that A) keep the tray off the ground without sinking into the sand, B) enable compact stacking, and C) don’t run up the cost too much. It’s just that we haven’t figured out how to do that yet.
So, instead, we cut one-foot lengths of half-inch PVC, and drill a hole through it about an inch from one end. We insert a leg in each corner of the each tray, and run a zip tie through the hole to secure it to the tray. Then we put a second zip tie on to keep everything solid, and the tray goes on the ground. We put them in rows of about thirty trays, leaving a gap every five trays so we don’t have to walk around entire rows.
We’re a small operation, and 250 trays can accommodate our crop – which begins at 100,000 but always ends up smaller as some oysters die, some get eaten, and some escape because of storms, equipment failure, or stupidity (ours, not theirs). If pressed, we could get all 250 out in a week of working every tide. Because we don’t need all 250 until later in the season, when the oysters have grown out more, we can take the spring equipment season at a more leisurely pace.
There is drudgery in putting out trays but, on a sunny, calm day when we get the rhythm of the work, it’s not at all unpleasant. The best thing about putting out trays, though, is filling them.
The seed we got as pinheads last May averaged something under two inches by the end of last season. We put them in 160 onion bags and stored them over the winter in a giant cooler, wrapped in burlap and kept humidified. Yesterday, Kevin and I and our friend Dave (who took these pictures) took them out of the cooler, and put them back out on the farm.
Oysters go dormant when they’re cold, and the water isn’t quite warm enough for them to wake up and start feeding yet. Soon, though, they’ll open their shells and start bi-valving away, and we’ll find a rim of translucent new growth on their edges. At least, that’s what we hope for.
The day we put the seed out is a good day. Nothing bad has had a chance to happen yet, and we can look with hope on the 160 onion bags that hold what is to be this year’s crop.
Let the season begin.