Once Upon an Oyster Farm

A Real Oyster Farm

There are some things in life that you never really think about where they come from. Things like roof tiles or pencil lead or pictures of cats with gigantic eyes. Of course, they were created or made somewhere by someone, some individual carefully crafting an object they make almost 365 days a year in some factory, or some random person inspired to capture a photo or pick up an object somewhere in the middle of no where.

I used to think this about oysters. They were creatures belonging to an ocean, spontaneously appearing in the market, on my plate. I had heard of oyster farms, even driven by supposed ones at Loch Fyne in western Scotland; but I imagined they were plunked down there by some fisherman, they spawned, and then they were magically caught, and then sold to some fishmonger in town. I envisioned them being like a fancier mussel – I thought oysters must grown on less poluted piers than their cousins.

Boy was I wrong.

On the first episode of the tv show Portlandia, a couple is deciding what to order at a restaurant. One of them wants to order chicken, but first they need to know where the farm is and what kind of life the chicken led. Fair enough, except the waitress really can’t answer all of their increasingly specific questions. She brings out a portfolio on the chicken they will be ordering, including what looks like a headshot of that chicken. The couple still can’t decide, so they decide to leave the restaurant and visit the farm, asking the waitress to hold their table.

This seems extreme, but there is something so integral to understanding your food and what it’s purpose is. There is something rewarding in knowing the effort that was put into the process; it makes you more appreciative. Maybe that’s why I like to grow vegetables – I see how the plants struggle with my novice skills, but with every tomato or bean or eggplant that does thrive, I can’t wait to eat it, see if it was worth it.

As for all my ideas about oysters being magically grown and/or flown to your plate, I seriously lacked any understanding of them or the effort it takes in farming them. Oysters are a serious creature, something that is raised with as much care and deliberation as say an organic free-range chicken. The rules and regulations around the farming of oysters are intense. They are not only heavily regulated by the Department of National Resources, but are regulated by whatever state the farms are located in. Then, there are health regulations for the facilities they are raised in, even if those facilities are on public water. This doesn’t even include the farmers process in which they inspect the oysters, they groom them, and they lovingly tend them just like the supposed chicks on Portlandia.

And why, you may ask did I decide to inform myself on this topic?

Well, on our trip to Ridge, Maryland, we decided it would be interesting to check out a local oyster farm, Circle C. We had read on their website that they offered tours and allowed you to “pick your own” oysters. So, we called the number, got no response, and drove out there.

A bit of very necessary background information – my dad and I love oysters. They are one of my favorite things in the world. When my parents visited me when I lived in Scotland, we purposely planned our vacation around Loch Fyne, a salt-water fed loch that was famous for their oysters and seafood. When my dad recommended going to St. Mary’s County as our sidetrip to D.C., the only words he needed to say was that they held an annual oyster festival. When he had attended it sometime in the 1980s, he ate oysters as big as dinner plates.

When we got to the oyster farm, the only thing we could see was a lonely pier with some floating white cages, a car parked nearby with its doors open, and a dog barking. At the end of the street was a giant gated house, something more along the lines of Malibu than the backwaters of the Chesapeake. We weren’t alarmed though. We were quickly learning that this was a deserted place in the world. There were beautiful summer homes and beautiful boats tucked here and there. But there were also the blocked up motorized homes, the barely thriving farms, and the occasional Confederate flag.

We walked down the pier and saw two people in swimsuits, a girl and a guy, in their mid-20s. They looked like they could have been friends of mine from college. They had gloves on and were sorting through what looked like tiny piles of rocks.

Baby Oysters (Not Rocks)
“Is this Circle-C Oyster Farm? Are you guys open for tours today?” my dad asked.
“We’d be happy to show you around,” the guy said. He explained that the rocks they were sorting through were tiny oysters, only a few months old. They were going to be putting them into a larger cage and in a few months hauling them up and sorting them again.
Through the conversation, we learned that the guy was the new owner; the girl, his sister. He was a paralegal in Baltimore, but had bought the business from the previous owner when they went bankrupt. (I think his name was Andrew? But that’s entirely a guess.)

“Do you think you might go bankrupt too?” my mom asked. It sounded harsher than she meant. She was genuinely interested in how someone makes a livelihood at oysters, especially when in the past 30 years, the fishing has dried up along the Chesapeake. Too many polluted areas and too much commercial fishing (i.e. over-fishing) has pushed people out of livelihoods that had supported families for over 200 years.
It turned out their father was a waterman, a successful one, and had a lot of contacts. They were already arranging contracts with restaurants, and for now, they only needed to come out to the farm once or twice a week, making it possible to work another job in the meantime.

“So are you starting over completely?” my dad asked, “Or did all of this come with it?”
Looking for the Fish That Got Away

They explained that they had received everything from the previous owner, including a cage of oysters, which were almost full-grown. They weren’t sure how old the oysters were, but they took a guess. Apparently once an oyster is older than 2 years, it is more susceptible to disease and they tend to die, so very few farmers let them get beyond a certain size. That’s why most oysters at restaurants are on average about the same size.

It took them awhile to haul the cage out of the water, their two golden retrievers that had been barking on our arrival eagerly awaiting whatever was lurking beneath. “She tried to catch a fish earlier,” the girl said, laughing, “It didn’t taste like what she was expecting though, so with one bite, she was done.”

Hauling Up an Oyster Cage

Sorting Through Several Month Old Oysters
The guy handed my dad some oysters, which were covered in mud; they were the size of a lopsided baseball. “Mind if I open them up? I noticed you have an oyster knife there?”

“Be my guest. I’ve never seen what these guys looked like before.”

The guy told us about the difference between bivalves and trivalves. Apparently the trivalve oysters, which have been breed specially for farming, grow quicker than their bivalve cousins. They also are more resistant to some of the diseases that have struck the wild counterparts.

It took my dad awhile to open the oysters he had been handed, as he flicked off the mud, little worms hurrying out. He washed the oysters in a sink full of clean water. Finally, after struggling, he pried one open. It was a sad gray color, a few other worms floating in the juices. We were not sure whether it was a good idea to eat it.

Three Oysters to Open

Opening the Oysters – No Luck

“Yeah, I don’t know if I would risk it,” the guy said. “These guys haven’t been looked after in months. They shouldn’t have all that buildup on them.”

“Give us a few months, though, or come back next summer, and we’ll have real oysters for you to try.”

Happy Oyster Dogs


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