Tourism and handshake relationships with local restaurant buyers are more important than ever for Cape Cod oyster farmers, who run high risk businesses.
— Jennifer Parker
A skinny, salty oyster farmer is crouched down on one knee on a floating dock, reaching elbow deep into a bucket of fresh spawn. He pulls up a briny heap, gleaming in the sun, which seems to fill him with excitement.
“Just the viability and consistency of these oysters is some of the best I’ve ever seen,” he says, before giving me a handful. “Ah!” I squeal. “They want to stick to my hand. They’re alive.”
Keeping them alive is this man’s entire modus operandi. He is Stephen Wright, General Manager of Chatham Shellfish Company, the exclusive grower of Chatham oysters since 1976.
For him, and the 287 other farmers with private aquaculture licenses in Massachusetts, the task is to nurse spawn from thumbnail-sized crustaceans to viable 2.5-inch, adult oysters destined for your plate. It’s a difficult business, given that at least 50 percent of the spawn will die before reaching adulthood. If they make it, the market is robust. In Cape Cod alone, aquaculture (the practice of fish and shellfish farming) is a $12.5 million industry, according to the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries.
In the Cape, having a monopoly on an entire town’s farmed oyster supply gives you rock star status. And, I think Wright enjoys it. For starters, he’s spending this sunny Sunday with his buddy (and buyer) chef Anthony Cole, another bigwig on the Cape who has held the position of executive chef at the five-star resort, Chatham Bars Inn, for the past 12 years.
Wright’s farm is a three-acre embayment stocked with floating trays, racks, bags, and cages — all brimming with thousands of oysters, a fraction of which are ready to be harvested. It’s a public waterway, bobbing with recreational boats and surrounded by multi-million dollar homes. Some homeowners aren’t keen on having an oyster farm with unsightly gear floating in their backyards. But that doesn’t seem to bother Wright. He’s more concerned with the competition.
“We’ve got more Canadian product coming in to the local marketplace, selling 2.5 inch oysters for a lower price point. They’re growing tons of oysters, because they have almost unlimited space,” he said.
Today, the bay is three shades of sky blue, and clear enough to see the bottom feeders — oysters embedded in the ocean floor, living cage-free and enjoying a diet of phytoplankton.
Wright snatches a few out of the water. Cole holds up a beauty, three inches long with a “deep cup” and a hard, rugged shell. “These have a lot of minerality to ‘em. It’s a superior product that we can harvest in the winter time. No cages,” said Wright, still wading thigh-deep in water. He said this loud enough for chef Cole to hear, who is paying attention.
Cole: “It’s gonna be a good fall.”
Wright: “You’re gonna have to put oyster stew back on the menu, ok?”
Cole: “Yep. Oh, yeah…”
That was it. They had just cut a business deal on a Sunday, standing in an oyster boat with tiny crabs and oyster brine sloshing around their flip-flopped feet. They’d done it before. They’d been to the Aspen Food & Wine classic together two years back, and still have a ball reminiscing about it. They rely on each other. More importantly, business is booming.
Chatham Bars Inn (CBI) spends an average of $140,000 on oysters annually. Per chef Cole, the property easily serves between 2,000 to 3,000 oysters each weekend. And Cole likes to mix it up. He buys from six different Cape Cod oyster farms to serve a discerning clientele of diners who take themselves as oyster connoisseurs, preferring “a variety of taste profiles.”
Cashing in on Tourism
Cape Cod’s oyster farmers ride a wave of summer tourism that not only props up their businesses, it also helps define their product as a luxury status symbol. “Summers on the Cape” is a serious cliché, because it fuels the local economy. If you’re having oysters and champagne at either CBI or Wequassett Resort in Harwich, you’ve made it — or so the folklore goes.
This has been going on for years. Cape Cod has received more than four million annual visitors since 2006, according to the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. Thus, when summer demand peaks, the Chatham Shellfish Company can sell 90 percent of its oysters to local buyers, and 10 percent out of state, according to the Cape’s dominant wholesaler Wellfleet Shellfish Company. Come fall, when the party’s over and the Cape quiets down, farmers are sent hunting for other buyers.
“Tourism is a big benefit to oyster farmers,” said Chris Schillaci, aquaculture and vibrio specialist at the Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF), which manages commercial and recreational permits. “You see more restaurants putting oysters on the menu consistently. But, it’s not just growth in tourism that helps farmers. It’s also general oyster acceptance.”
To understand the increase in “oyster acceptance,” look at the prices. The market value for local oysters has shot through the roof. In 2006, the “dockside value” of Massachusetts’ entire inventory of farmed oysters was $6.2 million. In 2017, that value hit $28 million, according to the DMF.
Naturally, more people want to get into what is clearly a thriving business. But acreage for new farms isn’t easy to obtain. In the last 10 years, the DMF has only issued a 10 percent increase in private aquaculture acreage. Most hopeful new entrants are waiting for farmers to retire or give up their grants. If they do get a lease, the income is uncertain, the upfront cost are high, and it takes approximately two years for oysters to grow to maturity.
A Risky Venture
On another day, in the nearby town of Dennis Port, oyster farmer Greg Burns is bellied up to his raw bar, ready to share the trials and tribulations of his profession. As the chef owner of The Oyster Company Raw Bar and Grille, he operates as the producer, buyer, and seller of his inventory. His is a shorts-welcome kind of joint that serves Quivet Neck Oysters for $1.25 a piece, alongside ice-cold martinis.
The subject of temperature is what gets him talking, in his native Massachusetts brogue. It’s a delicate subject, because oysters die if they overheat, and this summer has seen record heat waves.
“Warmer weather creates a better climate for bacteria. So, that’s the concern. Anything over 60 degrees is conducive for bacterial growth. Right now, the water is about 75 degrees,” he says, as we sit and watch his employee George shuck raw oysters on the half shell, served with lemon slices.
Since 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has required Massachusetts to implement a plan to minimize the risk of illness associated with food poisoning related to the consumption of raw oysters. Thus far, the “plan” is a matter of timing. As soon as oysters are exposed out of the water, farmers have 2 hours to get them on ice, and start the cooling process. After another 2 hours, they must get down to 45 degrees. If you miss that window, you can’t serve them.
Winter, too, poses major risks. In 2015, Cape Cod oyster farmers awoke to find most of their farms covered with icebergs. Burns leans over to show photographic evidence on his smartphone: “You never know. Some winters are fine. Others, you’ll have million pound icebergs floating on your farm. When the tide goes out, they drop on top of the gear. All my cages got flattened,” he said. And yet, here he sits. Exhausted, but optimistic, he’s ready to tackle another season.
Ironically, oystering is a working class enterprise. There’s nothing fancy about it. Farmers dance between boom times and hardship, with uncertainty and grueling legwork being the only constants. For Burns, it’s a labor of love: “My farm is like a getaway. It’s very peaceful out on the water. The phone’s not ringing, and out there I feel free.”
Jennifer Parker is a writer and reporter based in New York City, covering culture, travel, and the travel industry. Her work frequently appears in esteemed publications such as Bloomberg Pursuits, Saveur magazine, Watch Journal, and the Washington Post.