Three generations of oysters

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.

11 people are having a conversation about “Three generations of oysters

  1. This is awesome. I just discovered your site a week ago and had it bookmarked to check out later. I had no idea you have an oyster farm. I’m definitely sticking around now.

  2. Great pictures! Now that i can see what the oyster farm looks like, I have a better understanding (and appreciation) for what goes into producing them. Now I have to ask, are the overwintered oyster grandparents as good quality wise as oysters in October and November are? I have always heard that oysters need warmer water to grow and then cold water to firm and sweeten them. If that’s true, is there any difference? If it is not true, what is the truth?

    • Greg — It is certainly true that, here in the Northeast, oysters are at their best in the fall. They’ve had an entire summer of feeding, and have plumped themselves up to survive the winter, when they go dormant. If you want the perfect oyster, eat a cold-water oyster in December.

      That said, they’re good at other times, also. The worst time to get an oyster around here is February or March, when oysters have been dormant for a couple of months. Then, when the water warms up, they start feeding again, and quality improves very quickly. We sampled ours last week, and were very pleased.

      Cold-water oysters are generally thought to be better than warm water, and I’ve certainly heard it said that it’s because cold water makes oysters store glycogen. The problem is that, in order for glycogen to taste sweet, we have to break it up into its component sugars, and it takes a lot of chewing (saliva enzymes do the breaking up) to make that happen. It’s just like white bread — if you chew it long enough, the long-chain starches break up into sugars, and you get the sweet taste. Eat one of our oysters, especially in the winter, and you get a pronounced sweetness when you bite into the adductor muscle — it ain’t glycogen. Rowen Jacobson, in A Geography of Oysters, says it might be glycine (a sweet-tasting amino acid). But that’s not for certain. Weird that we don’t know. Or that I don’t know, at any rate.

      I do know that cold-water oysters are generally better than warm-water (although I’ll admit to having had some tasty ones from Mobile Bay). And there you have it — a completely incomplete explanation.

      • Thank you! It makes sense even if it is incomplete. I, too, like oysters from Mobile Bay (and from the Appalachicola Bay in Florida), but northeastern Atalntic oysters in mid-winter afre sublime to me. No lemon, hot sauce or cocktail sauce needed. Just shuck, chew, swallow, repeat.

  3. 150,000 tiny mouths to feed! Good thing they’re not all going to college or going to want cars – Just a trip to the big city. 🙂

    Isn’t FedEx amazing? Why, someone can catch ship striped bass and have it arrive in the far away mountains the next day. Extraordinary! The powers of FedEx and generosity of some people is amazing. 🙂

    • Luckily, we don’t have to feed those 150,000 mouths ourselves. They feed themselves with what they glean from teh water. It’s a little like pasturing … sort of.

      Glad the fish arrived safely. We like to share our bounty with all landlocked pig farmers who help us with our livestock!

  4. How come in most photos everyone is in t-shirts, but in one other you look almost ready for a polar expedition ?

    • The weather out there changes on a dime. In the same week, we had days when it was 75 and sunny, and days when it was 55 and stormy. I always go out with more clothes than I think I need, because it can be beautiful when we leave and windy and cold when we come back. I get cold easily, so you won’t catch me going on any polar expeditions any time soon.

  5. It’s fascinating to read about oyster farming. Reading the technical content, it’s hard to believe that you and Kevin are just ‘three generations’ new to this. You look and sound like old pros.

    I laughed out loud at your ‘gifted and talented’ trays. Here, we seem to specialise in the “slow to develop” and “special” variety of stock. I have a kennel and a fieldful of each.

    As bona fide oyster experts, what do you think is the best way to enjoy an oyster – raw or in a particular recipe?

    • Oh, we have plenty of “slow to develop” around here. You should take a gander at my sugar snap peas!

      The trick to sounding like an old pro, I’ve learned, is to write about the 3 things you know, while conveniently leaving out the 2,743,135 things you don’t. Hence the brevity of this particular piece.

      As for eating oysters, I think they’re best raw. I’ll put them in a stew or a soup, but they lose something. Something important. But, as oyster farmers, Kevin and I are in favor of eating them in quantity, and being willing to pay through the nose for them.

Converstion is closed.