As those of you who come here regularly know, last year was a bust, oyster-wise. The brutal weather killed 90% of our overwintered crop, leaving us with almost nothing but a bumper crop of oyster shell to put on our driveway (which, I have to say, is much improved – it’s an ill wind that blows no good).
It was demoralizing, and there were moments, last year, when Kevin (who is the farmer-in-chief of this enterprise) contemplated the throwing in of the towel.
But everything’s different now. Last fall, Kevin bought the shellfish operation of a widow whose husband had farmed oysters and clams, and we now lease three acres – two in Barnstable Harbor, on the north side of the Cape, and one in West Bay, on the south side. It opens up many new possibilities – for more oysters, for steamers, and possibly for razor clams – and we’re ramping up.
To that end, we bought 300,000 seed oysters – double our usual purchase – and 200,000 of them were ready to go out on the grant this week. Not coincidentally, we had houseguests. Our friends Dave and Bonnie were visiting from Vermont. Bonnie and Dave are nothing if not game, and they were ready and willing to help us get the seed out.
Kevin and I picked it up in the morning from our friends at Cape Cod Oyster. They had gotten it from the hatchery when it was about the size of a pinhead, and grown it to 10 millimeters. (That’s a step we used to do ourselves, but it makes more sense for us to buy it larger, from people who have the facilities to grow it out more efficiently and uniformly.) At that size, there are 4.4 oysters to the gram, which meant our 200,000 weighed almost exactly 100 pounds.
The seed came in two fish totes – sturdy plastic boxes that can either nest or stack – and we loaded them in the back of the truck, hoping that we’d be able to get all of the seed out in the four-hour window that low tide afforded us.
It’s a big job, and most of the work happens before seed day. Kevin has spent the last three months getting all our equipment ready to go. He replaced the legs on hundreds of trays, washed and repaired hundreds of bags, and devised a new system to attach the bags to the trays (the trays hold mature oysters, and the stiff bags of younger oysters lie on top of them). He attached lengths of cord to thousands of the stainless steel clips that hold the bags on the trays.
By the time yesterday rolled around, the trays were already out on the grant, and the bags were tied in bundles of ten, ready go. After we picked up the seed, but while the tide was still fairly high, Kevin and Dave took the bundles of bags (32 of them) out, so they’d be there when we went out later in the day with the seed.
Here’s what had to happen in our four-hour window:
Each of 320 bags had to get about 650 baby oysters (five ounces or so) put in it. Volume-wise, that’s about a cup and a quarter, and we found a coffee mug that held exactly that much.
Each bag then needed to be closed with a slide, which is a tube the length of the top of the bag, slit the long way. You put the corner of the bag in the slit, and slide the tube over the top.
Once the slide’s on, you attach the clip that will hold it to the tray. Then you put a zip tie around the slide, just to make sure it stays in place.
The filled, closed bags go in the cart, 20 at a time, and have to be transported to, and attached to, the trays, two bags to a tray.
We had 320 bags, 240 minutes, and four people, which meant an average of three person-minutes per bag. It was a tall order.
A job like that is all about the logistics. It’s about putting the tote of oysters, the slides, the clips, and the zip ties in easy reach of the bags. It’s about having an efficient way of moving the bags from step to step. It’s about not wasting motion and staying out of other people’s way. Done properly, it’s a kind of dance.
It took us a while to get it down, but after the first hour we were working like that well-oiled machine you always hear about. Bonnie and I filled the bags in batches of twenty, and each of us then took ten to put on slides, clips, and zip ties. From the first bag to the last, Bonnie never stopped moving, jumping in to do whatever needed to get done, and getting faster and faster as she got more practice. I work pretty hard when I’m out there, but working alongside someone else working hard helps me keep up the pace, too.
Once our twenty bags were finished and piled in the cart, Kevin and Dave took them away and attached them to the trays. If they got back before the next twenty was ready to go, they helped with the clips and zip ties. As soon as they took one load away, we started the next.
It’s robotic work. You do the same thing over and over again, and the only variation is when something goes wrong — the slide won’t go on the bag or the clips get tangled up together. But there is satisfaction in finding the rhythm, of working smoothly with other people, and in getting the job done in the four hours the tide granted us, which we did. There’s also satisfaction in being tired, sore, and a little banged-up from lifting heavy, awkward things with sharp edges.
It feels good, to start fresh. These 200,000, and the additional 100,000 that we’ll get later in the summer, won’t be big enough to sell this year, but we’re cautiously optimistic about 2017.