Our oyster season is in full swing, and we have, as we speak, three generations of crop on the farm. They aren’t literal generations, they’re more like a year-class – all three come from the hatchery, and they may or may not be genetic relations. But it’s easier to refer to them as grandparents, parents, and children than year-class 2011, YC2012, and YC2013.
The youngest oysters, the children, arrived last week. When we get them, they’re the size of pinheads, and 150,000 are, in aggregate, a little bigger than a brick. They come from the hatchery, Mook Sea Farm, by FedEx overnight, and we pick them up in the morning so we can get them in the water by the afternoon.
They’ll spend their first few weeks in green fine-mesh spat bags, which we rig so that the seed gets moved around a lot by the water, and doesn’t collect in a heap in the corners. We put a cylinder of rigid plastic mesh in the bag to keep it from bunching up, and we tie the top and bottom to opposite sides of a tray so there are no crannies for the oysters to get stuck in. Just for good measure, we put an inverted tray over the bags so that, if they were to come untied, they wouldn’t drift off to Portugal. Because our entire crop is in 24 bags, losing one at this stage is something we want to avoid.
To keep our oysters growing, we’ll transfer them to mesh bags with larger holes as soon as we can. The optimal oyster containment system has holes small enough to keep the oysters in, but large enough to allow maximal water flow. The green spat bags have holes that are .75 millimeters, and the oysters don’t have to grow much before we can move them to 1.25-mm orange spat bags. When they outgrow those, we’ll move them to a series of rigid grow-out bags, where they’ll get to about an inch and a half, give or take, by December – at which point we’ll put them in onion bags to overwinter in the cooler.
So much for the children.
The parent generation is last year’s seed. We took them out of the cooler in April, and we’ll leave them to grow in their onion bags – one bag in each tray – until they’re large enough to be dumped into those trays, their final home. Most will reach legal size this year (some are close already), and we’ll start selling them in the fall.
The grandparents are the parents from last year that didn’t grow fast enough. Regular Starving visitors know that we experimented by overwintering them right there in the harbor – always a risk because of the ice, which destroys everything in its path. We could have come out in the spring to a tangle of wire and almost-legal oysters scattered to the winds, but we were lucky, and our trays, with our 10,000 oysters, were intact.
Those 10,000 have been growing, and we’ll be sending the first installment – 2000 of them – to New York this week. When we have an order to fill, we go out to the farm a couple of days before we’re going to ship them, and hand-pick the oysters to fill the order. We move them to trays that we’ve set up higher than our grow-out trays – my stepson Eamon nicknamed them the ‘gifted and talented’ trays. A little extra height off the sea floor helps clean any silt and sand off them, and we like to give them a few tides there. Then, on shipping day, we do one last quality-control check as we fill bags from those trays. Then they’re off to New York.
Because oysters look more like rocks than animals, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that we’re growing food. Every day we go out there, we have a job to do – gauging and sorting and shlepping and cleaning – and the oysters might as well be rocks, for all the finesse required. But on those days when the job is to fill onion bags with 100 oysters each and drive them to our Massachusetts wholesaler, who’ll relay them to our New York wholesaler, it is enormously gratifying to think of the New York diners who will actually eat them.
Thanks to our friends Susan and Ron Tuveson, who helped us get the seed out. We value having help on the farm, not least because we get a few pictures with both Kevin and me in them! Susan snapped while Ron tied oyster bags — we are grateful to both.