I know what you’ve been thinking. You’ve been thinking, “When is Tamar going to tell us more about the fine points of oyster farming?” You’ve been waiting, on tenterhooks, to hear about water temperature and salinity, and to see yet more pictures of a product that always looks the same.
I’m here to oblige! By the time I’m done with you, you’ll be ready to start your own farm!
Oyster farming isn’t even that hard. In theory, at least. All you’re trying to do is allow nutrient-rich water to flow around each and every one of your charges. Really, that’s all it is. In practice, it comes down to an endless series of engineering challenges.
When the oysters are small, you need some kind of container that lets water in but doesn’t let pin-head size oysters out. Anything mesh with very small holes is likely to get fouled with silt, oyster feces, or miscellaneous weedy things, and the challenge is to either prevent that or find an easy way to clean the mesh. Or, more likely, a little bit of both.
As the oysters grow, they go into bags with larger mesh that are less likely to foul, but there are other problems. In order to keep the oysters from clumping up in a corner, the bags have to be stiff, but any infrastructure that stiffens a bag is also likely to trap oysters in corners and behind frames. Those oysters are seldom salvageable.
Once they’re big enough – two inches, or a little less – they go in trays. The trays have to be kept off the sea floor, so water flows both over and under, but the weight of the oysters tends to make them sink. The legs should resist sinking, but not prevent the trays from stacking for winter storage.
Because wave action often pushes oysters into a corner, too many oysters in a tray can lead to spillout as the pile in the corner gets higher than the side of the tray. Too few oysters in a tray, and you end up spending a lot of time growing not very many oysters.
You need to use materials that do everything you need them to, and do it while withstanding near-constant immersion in salt water. You need those materials to be durable, cheap, and, ideally, light. It’s a tall order.
I’m glad to say we get a little better at all this each year. We’ve changed the way we suspend the bags with the baby oysters. Our first set of trays taught us a lot, and our second set was a little different. We’ve reduced our density to the point where we have more uniform growth and less spillout.
But there are lots of things we can’t control. We’re affected by those things you’ve been dying to hear about, like water temperature and salinity! Weather can jostle things around, and affect the nutrient level in the water. If our neighbor is pumping steamers, some of the silt he pumps up can land on our crop. Sometimes, there are clear reasons that one part of the farm gets muddy, or another part seems to foster faster growth. Other times, the reasons are mysterious. The hydrodynamics of a large, shallow harbor with a ten-foot tide are complicated.
One of the things we didn’t expect, at least that first year, is the way silt and mud build up under the trays. When we put them out in March and April, there’s a good six inches of clearance. By September, the ground has risen up to meet the trays, and water no longer flows underneath them.
I don’t know why that happens, but I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation, probably involving hydrodynamics. Ideally, I’d like to know what that explanation is, but I don’t think it would do me much good – I’m pretty sure there’s nothing we can do to prevent it. The only thing we can do is move the trays, and that’s exactly what we did this past week.
Moving the trays is one of those jobs – and there are many – that make me glad we’re farming on a small scale. While moving a tray isn’t terribly difficult, doing it 250 times can wear on you.
The trays have market-size oysters in them, small oysters in bags on top of them, and, sometimes, mud. The lightest weigh as little as twenty pounds, and the heaviest as much as seventy. It’s a two-man job: Kevin takes one side, I take the other, and we lift the tray out of the ground and move it three feet into what was, until today, the aisle. The job is complicated by the fact that, in order to move the tray, one of us has to step in the pile of mud that has accumulated under it. It’s six inches of boot-sucking muck, sucking at your boot for all it’s worth.
You extricate your foot, and move on to the next tray.
We did the job in one tide, and the oysters are now muck-free, with water flowing above and below. Oh, and one other thing – they’re astonishingly good. Kevin and I don’t take any credit for the flavor of our oysters. It’s something in the water. We’re farming in what Kevin calls “the Napa Valley of oysters,” and I can say with confidence that we – along with all our neighbors – are growing some of the best bivalves on the east coast.
A couple weeks back, we participated in the Barnstable Oysterfest, a fund-raiser organized by our friends at Wianno Oyster and Barnstable Seafarms, that celebrated the products coming out of the Napa Valley of oysters. Kevin and I shucked several hundred for the attendees, each of whom paid $100. for the privilege of eating a sampling of what local farmers are growing, and local restaurants are cooking. It’s not often that we get to shuck an oyster, hand it to a stranger, and watch as he eats it.
And then he makes that face. That “this is outrageously delicious” face. And he tells you, flat out, that you grow a wonderful product.
I’m telling you, it’s worth a lot of heavy lifting.