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What It's Like to Be an Oyster Farmer

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The plot Annie McNamara takes us to first is Skip Bennett’s newest project: He’s growing a crop of oysters here that he calls Aunt Dotties, named for his great aunt, who loved the Red Sox, kept lobster traps well into her 70s, and lived year round (without electricity) in the cottage at Saquish’s very tip—a piece of land that has been in Skip’s family since the 1600s. It’s here that Annie parks the car and we get out. From where we’re standing, we can see Skip several hundred meters out on the mudflats, mucking around in a sweatshirt and rubber waders and picking through large, flat wire cages.

Skip Bennett, founder of Island Creek Oysters, on the mudflats with his Aunt Dotties.
Skip Bennett, founder of Island Creek Oysters, on the mudflats with his Aunt Dotties.

Inside those wire cages are about a million Aunt Dottie oysters. They spend their whole lives there, never touching the mud; in nature, oysters will nestle down, covering and insulating themselves with mud. Of Island Creek's three oyster crops—Aunt Dottie, Island Creek, and Row 34—only the Island Creeks are grown that way, or “bottom-planted." (The Row 34s are grown on the same plot of land as the Island Creeks, but using the same “tray” method as the Aunt Dotties.) Here on Saquish, the cages, woolly with seaweed, protect the Aunt Dotties from crabs and birds, and sit in the open air all day until the tide rolls in over them.

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Our managing editor Kenzi and I had driven up to Island Creek Oysters that morning, leaving New York early so early that we avoided rush hour in every city we pass through. We wanted to make it to Island Creek before the tide came in. Low tide was at 10 A.M., Annie had told us, and because this farm is part beach, today we were racing the tides.

We're here because we're struck by how mysterious the oyster is—pearl-generating, water-filtering, simultaneously slimy and elegant, as composed as a held breath. The early-20th century writer Saki wrote in The Chronicles of Clovis that "Oysters are more beautiful than any religion... There's nothing in Christianity or Buddhism that quite matches the sympathetic unselfishness of an oyster." (M.F.K. Fisher, on the other hand, wrote in Consider the Oyster that they lead" a dreadful but exciting life.") We want to know what's going on in there, inside their shells; we want to meet the people who are devoted to oysters, who are obsessed with them. Which is how we found our way to Island Creek.

Kenzi records Annie as she drives us to Saquish to meet Skip and the Aunt Dottie oysters.
Kenzi records Annie as she drives us to Saquish to meet Skip and the Aunt Dottie oysters.

We didn't know what to expect when we pulled into the farm’s parking lot in Duxbury, Massachusetts, jittery on Dunkin' Donuts coffee. From the lot, the farm simply looks like a small dock next to a warehouse next to a hunkered-down-for-winter maritime school. Just beyond is the cold, blue Duxbury Bay, and several million oysters biding their time.

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Island Creek is made up of two land grants—two parcels of land where they’re permitted to grow and harvest oysters: One is just off the dock we first drove up to, where founder Skip Bennett started the farm in the 90s. The other is in Saquish, a tiny, off-the-grid neighborhood (of mostly summer residences) a 25-minute drive down a stretch of beach. That’s where Annie, Island Creek’s director of consumer sales and marketing, takes us first.

Left, the oyster speaks! Right, Aunt Dotties are grown in a tray, off the sand.

Skip’s shellfish-farming origins began 25 years ago with mussels and clams; before that, he thought he wanted a desk job in finance. Instead, he took a giddy turn towards the waterfront he grew up on in Duxbury. “I love being out on the water,” he tells us once he's waded over. “I’ve been one of the fortunate people to find my calling in life—[I love] the independence of it, the physical work, the opportunity to run a small business…”

He really does seem to love every moment of it. He spends summers out in the cottage Aunt Dottie lived in. One of his daughters, Maya, is even named after the soft-shell clam (Mya arenaria), of which Skip dug 300 pounds daily when she was first born in order to support his growing family. There wasn’t a lot of money then, as the farm was just getting started. Since then, Island Creek has grown to include a team of 30 farm employees, two restaurants, a distribution program, and a foundation that promotes aquaculture as a sustainable source of protein in Haiti and Zanzibar.

100 Island Creek Oysters $150
100 Island Creek Oysters

Are they okay, out of the water like that? we ask, pointing to trays of Aunt Dotties and perhaps thinking of M.F.K. Fisher's words. They are okay—and actually, this “tray” method of growing is one of the variables that gives the Aunt Dotties their distinctive flavor profile. Each of Island Creek’s three oyster crops, though all grown in from the same seed and all planted Duxbury Bay, has a distinct taste. “In wine, they talk about terroir,” Annie tells us as she opens one of the cages so we can look inside. “In oysters, we talk about merroir.”

Just as the temperature, moisture, and mineral content of the soil grapes are planted in will affect the flavor of the wine they become, an oyster’s flavor reflects how it was grown: Growing Aunt Dotties in cages keeps them secure in this less-protected part of the Bay, and significant exposure to the air means that the muscle that clamps the oysters closed is very strong; their location, at the tip of the tiny peninsula where Saquish is, also means the water is colder. And the result of all of this is that the Aunt Dotties are especially sweet, while their cousins, the Island Creeks, are slightly brinier and more vegetal.

Sun-bleached oyster shells in the "driveway" of Aunt Dottie's cottage on Saquish.
Sun-bleached oyster shells in the "driveway" of Aunt Dottie's cottage on Saquish.

Every small decision in how to grow the oysters will influence their flavor—and Island Creek has a hand in every part of their oysters' lives. They're one of few New England oyster farms to have a hatchery, a science classroom-like space with a tall tanks and a series of thick plastic pipes, where they grow algae through the winter to feed the oysters they breed from—and the babies they spawn.

They watch the babies grow from microscopic little swimmers to the size of a fingernail to a half-inch in length, at which point they're deposited in the Bay—first in bags, and then, once they're an inch long, in cages or on the bottom of the Bay. Even the density at which they're planted will affect their flavor: “The fewer the oysters Skip keeps in this bag, the less dense they will be, and the more work it is” for the farm crew to harvest and care for them, Annie explains. But the lower the density, the more access each oyster has to the algae that they survive on, and the happier, fatter, and presumably tastier the oyster will be when it reaches market size (3 inches long) two years after its birth.

Oysters’ merroir means that they’re as rooted in the region that they’re grown as a wine varietal is. And as a result, there’s a lot of pride of place at Island Creek: The whole company loves Duxbury, loves Duxbury Bay, loves the town’s rich history. (Skip can trace his ancestry to the Mayflower, and directly across the water from where we’re standing on Saquish, we can see the place where the pilgrims originally landed, Clark’s Island.) Many of Island Creek’s employees, including Skip, grew up in Duxbury. The employees’ livelihoods—and the characteristics that make their oysters unique—are directly dependent on the Bay.

About a million Aunt Dotties grow out at Saquish.
About a million Aunt Dotties grow out at Saquish.

And the Bay has been very rewarding of oyster farming. The water is too cold for it to be hospitable to wild oysters (the water would need to be warmer for oysters to be able to spawn); but Island Creek generates its oyster seed in its hatchery and keeps the baby oysters in the hatchery’s controlled climate until they’re big enough to handle the temperature of the Bay. Once in the Bay, they benefit from its chilly 12-foot tides, which provide them with a fresh supply of algae twice a day.

The oysters filter this water through themselves constantly, 50 gallons of water per oyster per day. They feed on the algae and incorporate any pollutants in the water, like nitrogen (a result of fertilizer runoff), into their shells. The oysters are stronger for it, and the water is cleaner for it: As much as the Bay is good for the oysters, the oysters are good for the Bay. Their footprint, and the footprint of oyster farming in general, is very small.

Skip Bennett with his oysters.
Skip Bennett with his oysters.

Skip’s love for the water and for oysters and the whole farming process is Midas-like: Everyone around him seems to take on his enthusiasm for it all. His father joined the business (“the second generation,” Skip jokes), his daughters both work at Island Creek when they’re not in school, and the farm crew is largely made up of townies, people who tell us a couple of times while we’re there that the motto of the company is to "work hard but have fun doing it." We hear variations of this phrase in the farm's office, in the car with Annie, on one of the farm crew boats, from Skip himself, each time fervent but relaxed, like there might be an amen after. Sure, the daily tasks are a grind; that's true of every job. But at the end of each long, long day, it's the reward of farming—and of farming oysters—that sticks with the crew.

The farm crew goes out in their boats every day to harvest, even in winter. (And in the winter, when Island Creek spawns oysters, the crew working in the hatchery is there 7 days a week to feed and care for the baby oysters.) “If the boats can get out,” Annie tells us, “they’re harvesting,” 10 hours a day, sunup to sundown. They largely do the work by hand: Some of the job is, yes, pulling up oysters and bringing them ashore, but there’s a lot of maintenance as well. The crew cleans the cages (in the summer, when algae production is at its peak, they do this daily), sorts the oysters by size, examines the shapes of the shells.

Funky, twisted oysters will correct their shells after a few months.
Funky, twisted oysters will correct their shells after a few months.

Sometimes the oysters they pull up are twisted and funky like shoehorns, the result of being crowded and having to fight for algae with other oysters. And those oysters simply get tossed back into a section of the grant specifically designated for the misshapen ones. Over the course of a couple of months, they’ll correct themselves: Their shells will straighten out and develop the desired deep cup shape, which promotes meatiness.

Much of the sorting—called “culling”—happens on a floating platform just off the dock near the parking lot. “Some people call this the Oysterplex,” the farm manager Andy Puopolo later tells us from the steering wheel of his motorboat on our way out to the platform, “but I like to call it my home.”

Left, a member of the farm crew at the Oysterplex. Right, rubber waders and trays of oysters.

The platform is outfitted with a shed, a long table, a series of bins for each of the culls: There’s a “market size” bin, a “too small” bin, a “return to sender” bin for the misshapen ones, and a special cull just for Thomas Keller, who uses Island Creek oysters in his famous “Oysters and Pearls” dish at Per Se and the French Laundry. He likes a slightly smaller oyster with a very deep cup, Annie tells us, since he cuts out the oyster’s belly for the dish.

At the Oysterplex, we ask Andy what the hardest part of being an oyster farmer is, thinking it could be any number of things—the tedious maintenance; the harsh weather conditions; the physicality; the long hours; the 2-year span it takes for an oyster to go from seed to market size.

Photos by James Ransom, James Ransom

“Honestly, there is no hard part [about this job] if you love it,” he tells us, sounding like Skip, who we’d left to tend smilingly to his passion project of surf clams out on Saquish. “You have to love it, because it’s farming… If you don’t love it, this job sucks… What do I love about it? I drive a boat to work. I work with mostly everyone that I grew up with in town. Older generation, younger generation. You’re farming, so it’s rewarding.”

Tags: oysters, shellfish, farmers, massachusetts, cape cod