I rarely rise before the sun, but when I do it’s for good reason. As I stood taking in this unbelievable view with the other onlookers who knew the sunrise would be putting on a show, I heard my friend say, “not too bad, is it?”. With my Yeti tumbler in hand full of coffee strong enough to make my eye twitch, I knew we were in for a good day.
I grew up spending a significant amount of time outdoors, but my love for the ocean didn’t come until college when I spent my first summer in Newport, RI (and never left). During that time I developed a particular love for salt water and the treats that come from it. I would travel to Maine for “summer camp” (at my parent’s house) and feast on lobster and mussels, but at that time the oyster movement hadn’t hit quite that far North. My affinity for them budded on Nantucket while sporting a deep summer tan and my favorite striped top at CRU Nantucket Oyster Bar. With that experience alive and well in my mind, I became somewhat oyster obsessed. I knew there had to be more to the story behind these savory little mollusks, and I was determined to get to the bottom of it.
When I met my friend John I instantly knew we would get along for two reasons. First, he’s also from Maine which gave him bonus points in my book! Secondly, John had been earning his salt working for Blue Yonder Oyster Farm in Duxbury, Mass. and I couldn’t wait to pick his brain. I was finally able to get a day on the books at this family farm to experience “a day in the life” and it was everything I had hoped for.
As the other crew members Tuffer and Declan pulled into the Harbor I was pulling up my Grundéns in preparation to head out on the water. They broke the ice by introducing themselves and kindly letting me know that my waders were in fact on backwards, an act of sheer folly on my part. The four of us loaded the orange crates onto the barge and headed off towards the sunrise. I was curious to learn how this salty crew ended up together on the farm and was impressed to learn that for most of them this was not their first career. With the ocean being so unpredictable, coupled with the physical demands on your body, as I quickly learned that oyster farming is not for the faint of heart.
Oyster seeds are spread in a way that maximizes the real estate between the buoys marking the farm’s lease. Within that area there are subdivisions based on when the seed was planted, and when they will be ready to harvest. Once John got us out to the area that was ready to be harvested, Tuffer skillfully cast out the dredge. The dredge with it’s angry looking teeth and net is towed behind the boat to collect from the oyster bed, and occasionally other things (I accidentally caught my first fish). Although I tried to release him back into the water as soon as I could, he was one slippery son of a gun and I’m not sure longevity will be on his side. The boys shared the most interesting thing they’d “caught” in the dredge was a bottle of Bloody Mary mix, I hear oysters can’t get enough of that stuff!
Once the dredge is full, a pulley system on the side of the barge is threaded and aids in fishing out the heavy treasure. Tuffer and Declan lowered the full dredge down onto the crates, emptying out the goods. These heavy crates full of oysters are then rinsed off over the side of the barge and strategically stacked. After observing Tuffer, they let me work the dredge teaching me to put my knee into it when releasing it and how to work the pulley. That thing is just as heavy as it looks! By 10AM our morning drag had filled 25 crates of fresh oysters that were ready to be culled.
My type A personality got a little hung up on the culling process initially. With a heaping pile of oysters in front of you the pressure is on to sort them correctly. The four classifications I focused on were petites, selects, twisties, and jumbos. Using an oyster ring to help me gauge the 3″ standard, I got to work. Apparently the guys could see I was struggling at times to decide and would help me out so I could move on. As I mentioned before, I am not an early riser! By this time of the morning I was starting to lose steam, but trying hard to conceal it. Then something wonderful happened, the radio turned on to Easy 99.1FM. All the “car seat classics” as I call them from back in the day brought me back to life, so much so that I didn’t even mind the occasional little crab being flung my way. With the crates culled, it was time to break for lunch.
We headed off to the Snug Harbor Fish Company where I was instructed to indulge like the locals and order the crabcake BLT. Market owner Diana is clearly a favorite of these Blue Yonder boys, and for good reason. It is so refreshing to experience part of a community that is friendly, down to earth, and just good people. We enjoyed our lunch sunning ourselves for a few extra minutes on the patio before heading back out on the water. During our afternoon on the water harvesting another 15 crates I learned how hard my favorite salty treats work daily, filtering 20-50 gallons of water per oyster! When you’re throwing back an oyster and judging its taste and texture, that oyster has most likely been growing and filtering the ocean waters for two years prior to hitting your lips. Knowing this helped me to understand what an important part of aquaculture oysters are, and why oysters from different parts of the country have such varied brines.
Every oyster farm produces something a little different, but it’s the thought and care of seed during the growing process that makes the difference. This was my first go at being an oyster woman, but I dare say that Blue Yonder Oyster Farm has something special that other farms don’t, the crew. Not only were they patient when teaching me the ropes, but it was also inspiring to hear them collaborate ideas and get excited about things like the Billion Oyster Project, and ways to evolve oyster farming.
Oyster farming is a year round venture, and I can’t say enough how much I respect these guys and the work they do daily to help the oceans stay clean and to bring us these salty treats. I hope to return once the float goes into the water and the days are a little warmer to see how the process changes in the summer months. I promise, I’ll get my waders on right next time.
Until next time, stay gangster.