I have a micrometer on the way, but for now I’ve only got pictures of the growth. Two weeks ago, all 200,000 oysters covered roughly 1/5 of the bottom of the silo, 2’x2′. Today they have just covered the entire bottom screen, so it’s fair to say that there has been 4-500% growth in the last 14 days. Incredible in itself, what is more incredible is that this has been less than what we’ve expected. I’ll be away for the next week, and I expect another 500% increase, at which time we will split the oysters with an industrial grader and move the faster growers to a different silo. By splitting, it gives the slower oysters a chance to feed without falling behind as oysters two or three times their size pull in all of the nutrients in the area. Runts = profit loss, and profit loss is not one of our goals.
What is oyster farming?
Great question! When “farm” comes to mind, the immediate image is most likely a combine harvester running through rows of grain. But this is a fish farm, not a grain farm, right? Next, the image is of bubbling pools, so thick with farm-raised salmon that you could not put your hand through to the bottom. Hormones and feed pumped in one end, waste pumped out the other. Fish farming is terrible for the environment, so oyster farming must be as well, right? Wrong!
A northeastern oyster farm is plopped in the middle of open water, more than likely comprised of one or two people obsessing over the quality of their crop, pouring their hearts into these little animals and praying to any power that will listen for nature to be kind this season. The slightest sign of an oil leak causes a full-on inspection of the boat, because oysters don’t like oil. Cramped growing areas may represent efficiency in some industries, but on an oyster farm they represent a higher likelihood of mortality and/or a misshapen oyster. Dirty equipment means unhappy oysters, so we obsess over bio-fouling (like seaweed and algae blooms,) and gear is constantly being powerwashed to maximize waterflow to the little guys. In the world of foodies, I have never run across a “chicken breast connoisseur,” but we as oyster farmers are growing an animal that will arrive to a table full of critics, raw, with our name written right across the menu. This knowledge, paired with the seemingly-innate obsession with quality that comes with most New England oyster farmers, is what makes our oysters such a special experience in the food industry.
Oyster farmers seem to not only abide by regulations, they exceed them. For example, in Massachusetts the main rule (there are many others) for selling oysters is that they must be 3″ from hinge to lip, but in many cases this is only a prerequisite for a proud farmer. Too pointy, too thin, too curved, or just plain too ugly are a few of the reasons I’ve heard for oysters not making it through a cull. (Culling is the process by which already-harvested oysters are selected, graded, and then bagged for distribution.) Organic? There is a reason an oyster is called a “kiss from the sea.” Once they make it into the water, the only real functions of a farmer is to keep the oysters at a comfortable density, and protect them from predators by use of bags or cages. Other than that, all of the nutrients an oyster gets come straight from the sea, one we hope to keep as free from chemicals as possible for the health of both our industry and our shorelines. Even an organic certification on food does not mean that there was no pesticides used, only “organic approved” pesticides. Imagine, for a moment, me standing on the bow of the work skiff, pouring a bucket of pesticide over the farm as the ocean current moves over it at a steady clip. We may as well be dumping dollar bills into the water!
Additionally, the impact of a farm on the natural habitat is carefully planned to be as low as possible. Before a site is approved for a future farm, it must be surveyed by the Army Corps of Engineers, and then by the Department of Marine Fisheries. This second inspection is to ensure that the proposed area is “historically unproductive.” This means that it can not have historical documentation of wild animals growing there within a certain period of time, as well as devoid of a significant presence of animals currently. This is for a few reasons:
- The farm is not disrupting an existing part of the ecosystem
- The farm is not profiting from what should otherwise be left either untouched for wild reproduction, or for recreational harvesting of clams/mussels/scallops, etc.
- The area is historically devoid of native plant life, such as eelgrass, an integral part of the ecosystem
An unproductive site does not mean that it is unable to sustain life, only that wild life has been unable to take hold for one reason or another. A farmers intervention between nature and animal begins here, with trying to figure out (nearly always by trial and error) the best ways to raise the oysters specifically for their site. This process is neverending, subject to changes in water composition, topographical changes of the site, current shifts, climate change, and an infinitely longer list of things that I couldn’t even begin to explain.
What we have found to be the biggest hurdle with our site is the changes in topography from one end to the other. The northern border of the grant is exposed for nearly an hour and a half longer than the southern border at low tides, and because of the fluctuations in tidal changes, the southern border isn’t exposed at all for more than 1/4 of the lunar cycle. For some methods, the less exposure the better. For other methods, farmers rely on their farm being exposed for half of a tide or more, and in many places on Cape Cod the farms are so high up that they are driven out to. We have, on average, two hours on both sides of low tide that we are able to work on the grant, giving us a 4 hour window, up to 6 hours on remarkably low drains, to do what we need to do. I recently took a course on the fundamentals of aquaculture, and as one of the few students who was an active farmer, I was one of the few who did not find it perplexing, if not maddening, that the answer to any question about the success of a certain method was invariably “that depends.”
These are the things that keep me up at night.
Well the last 24 hours have been pretty crazy. I posted this photo to Reddit at 8 this morning and it turned into a 2+ hour Q&A with a bunch of strangers on the Internet!
What you are looking at here is 200,000 oyster seeds, all about 2mm from hinge to lip. We are growing these in an “upweller” – I provided a diagram below – until they reach about 7mm in length over the next 6 weeks, and will then move them to the grant in the tray system that I will be introducing to the blog within the next few posts. The rest of the oysters will be delivered in the first week of July, all at 7mm, which will go straight to the grant.
In each of the cylinders in the picture (we call them silos,) anywhere between 200k and 1 million seeds will be placed at 2mm. As they grow, the oysters will become about 2 inches thick, at which point we will grade them by size and split them again. Smaller oysters don’t do well with bigger oysters, and without splitting there will be a greater occurrence of runts, stunted oysters that will never reach the 3″ that is necessary for sale in Massachusetts. If they do not reach the 3″ but we can grow them to a good weight/cup and 2.5″ then they are sold as “petites” outside of MA.
Here is the only picture I currently have of our upweller, but on Friday I will be sure to get pictures of the seed out of the bag, as well as a video of the upweller in action. The little motor on the other side of the trough is the propeller pump, which nests directly under where it is sitting and pulls water through the trough, creating suction in the discharge pipes that run into the silos, which then pulls water and nutrients through the fine-mesh screens at the bottom of each.
And thanks for the looks, Reddit!
This past winter was an eye-opening experience, and one that I wished to have shared but couldn’t figure out how to draw any readers towards a series of blogs saying “today was cold, my hands went numb, and we had to chop ice to get the boat off the ramp.” Since this isn’t what the blog will consist of moving foward (at least until December,) I figure I can at least recap.
When I first helped Don out, it was late October of 2012, and I figured that there was no way I would be out on the flat during the winter. A short month later I experienced my first snowstorm in a boat, and two months later found myself waiting for my hands to go numb so I could get started with harvesting without the pain. I’d get home from work each day and crawl under my covers for an hour before I felt my core temperature rise again, and found myself walking around the house in shorts and tank tops on my days off, sweating. Below is my gear list over two seasons, but I think it warrants a mention first that the biggest difference, hands down, was better waders and gloves that fit.
2012 Winter Gear List (worn all at once)
- 3 pairs socks
- Silk longjohns
- Fleece longjohns
- Polartec longjohns
- Nike Running Sweatpants
- Nike cold-weather running turtleneck
- Smartwool winter turtleneck
- Hooded sweatshirt
- Insulated foul-weather jacket
- Neck gaiter
- Lined beanie
- Lined rubber gloves (snowblower gloves)
- Waders (off-brand, fall weight)
The hardest part was undoubtedly the ride out to the grant, a 15-minute ride in oftentimes sub-35° weather that chilled you to the bone before arriving to work. With all of my hiking experience, I do look back on this list as rather foolish and inefficient, but I learned.
This past winter, I came to play. I spent the summer reflecting on why my hands and feet went numb, how to keep the cold away from my chest, and how important it was to wear better waders.
2013-14 Winter Gear List
- 1 pair Smartwool Ski socks, 1 pair Smartwool Heavy wool socks – Quality > Quantity
- 1 pair Under Armor ColdGear tights
- 1 pair fleece longjohns
- 1 pair fleece sweatpants
- Nike winter turtleneck
- Smartwool winter wool turtleneck
- Insulated hooded sweatshirt
- Gage rain/wind jacket – If I learned anything from hiking other than how to walk all day, it’s that wind and water protection is the number one key to staying warm.
- 700 gram Thinsulate neoprene waders – Worth their weight in gold
- Buff gaiter – One of my favorite accessories
- Neoprene facemask for ride out/back
- PROPERLY FITTING INSULATED GLOVES – This part was major: The gloves I wore were too big the past season, and the additional effort it took to maneuver them ruined my circulation.
What better day for a first post than Earth Day? It occurred to me last summer, halfway through the grow season, that this is an incredibly interesting opportunity that should be shared and documented.
A little about me: I am 27, born and raised on the South Shore of Massachusetts, a proud resident of Boston, business student and full-time oyster farmer. I began oystering as a fluke, helping a friend starting their retirement project in October of 2012, but here I am 18 months later absolutely in love with these little guys and fascinated by the entire landscape of aquaculture. That fall I remember thinking that there was no way I would be sitting out on that grant during the snow, but for two winters in a row I found myself waist-deep in icy water and beard full of rime, loving every moment of it. I have no background in marine biology, nor do I make any claim to being marine bio-savvy, and graciously accept any sort of dissenting opinions, corrections, or suggestions from anyone who has taken the time to read this blog. One of the biggest things I love about oystering is the intimacy with the sea that consuming them requires, and I think that this intimacy can translate easily to a farmer-consumer relationship as well.
I am aware that the word “farm” often raises the hackles of many people, bringing to mind gratuitous application of pesticides and hormones, terrible environments and an overwhelmingly exploitative treatment of animals. I’d like to put these images to rest before we go any further with the blog. Attempting to use pesticides or any other sort of chemical on an oyster grant would be fruitless; imagine me standing on a boat dumping a barrel of chemicals into an open bay and hoping they do something. Oysters are natural filter-feeders and feed on micro-organisms, and the biggest thing that we as farmers can do to help that food supply is by having as little impact on it as possible. I guess you could call our oysters “free-range,” even though they don’t move very much (at all). Additionally, as stated, we have no intervention in their food supply. The only intervention we have in the process is in protecting them from predators when they are infants, and of course, planting them where they aren’t native. We take “all-natural” to the next level by dumping our mature oysters onto the bottom of the bay, and hoping they don’t get eaten by predators, carried off by storm currents, killed off by a disease, smothered by sediment, baked in the sun, frozen in the winter, a combination of some or all, or other surprises.
Hopefully I’ve covered the introduction. Bear with me, I am going to be figuring out what this blog is going to look like as I go. As I said, suggestions are more than welcome!