The oysters are out

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.

9 people are having a conversation about “The oysters are out

  1. Stephen Andrew says:

    Impressive! I am glad they made it through the winter. Also, now I’m craving them. With this success are you feeling like maybe you’re going to change your mind on turkeys this year? Haha basically I enjoy reading about the day-to-day of raising turkeys trying to gather as much info as possible in the event I ever (actually) do it myself. Who will menace your neighbors? Who will ventilate the hoop house?

  2. fascinating. i learned more about oyster making than i ever before knew. do the trays go in and out of the water as the tide comes and goes?

  3. SA — I’m sorry we won’t be reporting on turkeys this year. And you’re right — that leaves us with nothing to destroy either our property or our neighbor’s. Somehow, that doesn’t seem to distress me. But I think we will miss livestock. Luckily, there’s always next year.

    Magpie — Yes, the trays stay put and the water comes in and out. Barnstable Harbor has a big tide — as much as 14 feet — so they’re high and dry for a couple hours at low tide, but can have ten feet of water over them at high.

  4. Is there an optimal depth in the water for them to feed?
    Has anyone tried anchoring them with floats, so they always sit /N/ centimetres below the surface, where /N/ is the best depth ?

    How do they grow bunched in on top of each other in the bag? Do the shells join up ?

    • Kingsley, you’ve hit upon it. Nutrients are dense at the surface, so lots of farmers use floating gear to keep their oysters where food is most plentiful. There are lots of places where that kind of gear is prohibited, though, because it’s intrusive. You see it all the time, and it interferes with boats. There are a couple of farmers who use floating gear on the south side of the Cape.

      As for bunching up, the tide moves them around more than you’d suspect. The oysters that are out in the trays get pushed first to one side and then the other. When they’re in the bags, the whole bag gets tossed around. But, if they don’t move around, they will attach to each other. If a tray’s too crowded, and there isn’t enough movement, we’ll get a lot of that. That’s one of the reasons we like to keep our tray density down.

  5. Accidental Mick says:

    The first few days of being able to do constructive work outdoors to prepare for the coming season always makes me feel good about myself. Makes me wish I’d started years ago instead of spending my working life at a desk.

    On Kingsley’s point, do oysters attach themselves to the trays like mussels attach themselves to ropes?

    • There’s definitely something about doing constructive work outdoors. It’s a big part of the appeal of oystering.

      As for attaching to the trays — yes, they’ll do that, if given a chance. Every year, we end up with one or two in most trays that have cemented themselves to the wire. Usually, though, they move around too much with the waves for that to happen. Also, they’ve been bred to have less of an attachment tendency than wild oysters. How they breed that out of them, I have no idea.

  6. Hey, Tamar! I opened up the Post food section this morning and saw a headline about making your own salt and knew instantly where that had to come from. You all still evaporating your own?

    • We are, PQ. We’ve gotten in the habit by now — even though we have enough salt to see us through Armageddon.

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