In for the winter

Whew. That’s done.

It’s one of the biggest jobs of the year, and it’s done. The oyster seed is in the cooler.

This year, we had twice as much seed as we’ve ever had, and so the job was twice as big. More than twice as big, actually, because it was a terrific growing year in Barnstable Harbor, and what started as about 150 pounds of 10-millimeter oysters turned into some 6,000 pounds of one- to nearly three-inch oysters.

Those of you following along at home may remember the last really big job we did, which was putting that seed out. We did it in two stages, with 200,000 going out in mid-June and another 100,000, from another source, in early August.

Those 300,000 spent the summer and fall eating and growing, growing and eating. But they have to spend the winter indoors.d

Barnstable Harbor becomes inhospitable to oysters – and to aquaculture – in the winter. Because the area we farm is intertidal, the oysters are out of the water for several hours, twice a day. If temperatures are cold enough to freeze them, and then they get knocked around by an incoming tide, they can die.

But then there’s ice. Giant sheets of it often form in the harbor, and they can sweep all your equipment, oysters included, off to Portugal.

When it’s cold, oysters go dormant, living off the stores they laid in during the nutrient-rich warmer months, so they can live in cold water or cold air equally well. So we bring them in. All 300,000 of them.

The process starts with transferring the oysters from the grow-out bags – stiff mesh bags about four feet by a foot and a half – into onion bags. The oysters take up much less room in the cooler that way and, when we put them back out in the spring, they can grow in the onion bags until they’re big enough to graduate to open trays.

Here are the steps involved in the transfer:

Unclip the two clips, one at the top of the bag and one at the bottom, that hold it on to the tray it sits on.

Carry the bag to the boat, or the station we’ve set up for pouring and bagging.

Remove the top clip.

Cut off the zip tie that keeps the slide (a piece of PVC pipe that holds the bag closed) on the bag.

Take off the slide.

Pour the oysters into the onion bag (we do this using a concrete footing form that doubles as a kind of funnel).

Cinch the onion bag, cut the drawstring, and tie it tightly closed.

Once that’s done, each bag has to be carried to a staging area, where we pile them all in preparation for bringing them in. We do that 427 times, with bags that weigh between ten and twenty pounds.

When we’ve done all 427 bags, it’s time to bring them in. In previous years, with smaller crops, we’ve done this all in our boat, a 17-foot Carolina Skiff. Because our crop was so much bigger, we knew it would take more than one trip, even in a larger boat. For Day One, we borrowed a 28-foot version to do the 200,000 from June.

Kevin and I recruited our friend Don to help, and we took the boat out as the water was coming in. The job is easier if you can bring the boat to the oysters, rather than having to bring the oysters to the boat. We floated the boat between the two rows where we’d staged the bags, and loaded them in as we went.

At the dock, we loaded them from the boat to the truck and landscape trailer. At the cooler we unloaded them to the pallets, about 100 bags per. The pallets are then wrapped to keep the stack stable, covered with burlap, and topped with ice. They go in a shipping container, with temperature regulated by a refrigeration unit and snow or ice, periodically added. We borrow cooler space from our friends at Cape Cod Oyster, whose business is so much larger than ours that 300,000 seed is an afterthought for them.

The remaining 100,000, which were substantially smaller since they went in the water six weeks later, Kevin and our occasional helper Sebastien were able to get in our boat. They went in the cooler this morning.

Total, that’s about 6,000 pounds. Each bag lifted from tray to pouring station, from pouring station to staging area, from staging area to boat, from boat to truck, and from truck to pallet. Moving 6,000 pounds five times is a big job.

Although there’s still work to be done in the form of a couple hundred trays that have to come in, too, we always breathe a sigh of relief when the seed is in the cooler. All we can do now is keep our fingers crossed for survival. If all goes as planned, 2017 will be the best year we’ve ever had.

8 people are having a conversation about “In for the winter

  1. I’m exhausted just reading about your day. If you aren’t already in bed, I hope you are enjoying a well-deserved glass of wine! Cheers!

  2. France Langelier says:

    That was so interesting! What happens in the spring – do you put them back in the water to grow another year, or are they big enough to sell?

    • They go back in the water to grow. We expect that the largest of them will be sellable some time in the early summer, and we hope that they all will be by winter.

      Always good to hear that there are people out there interested in the nitty gritty!

  3. Accidental Mick says:

    Well done to you both, that was a mammoth task.

    I am pleased for you that you are on the way to getting a good crop (fingers grossed). I remember that a while back you were considering giving up on oystersand I am glad you didn’t. Perseverance pays (usually)l

  4. Wow1 VERY interesting! Hope they are all viable come spring and salable by fall. Then the merry-go-Round starts all over? Will you put out babies in spring also? or the following year?

  5. Thanks for this really informative post. I’m very happy I stumbled on your blog. I wish your crop and you both the best! I am so glad I learned how the oysters are “made” (for lack of better word!). You look so happy in that photo together, it’s very sweet! My boyfriend and I fish and we’ve talked about hunting (I’ve been reading your other posts on hunting)…we aren’t quite there yet. But reading your experiences is really motivating me to learn more. 🙂 We live in the Laurentian mountains and have ample opportunity to hunt for our meat….it’s something more to consider…

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