As we talk about our farm operations, you'll notice that much of the language we use makes it sound like we're growing plants. We buy oyster "seed" and we "plant it" on the beach.
Rest assured: we don't actually grow vegetables. Oysters and clams are definitely animals, but shellfish farming is unlike any other form of protein production in that it consumes no fresh water, uses no chemicals or added feed, and requires little daily intervention.
This is not to say that we don't handle the oysters a lot. We do. Our farm interns often say that their main takeaway from their internship is that oyster farming is a ton of work. Part of art of growing oysters lies in timing your interventions to match their growth rate... the faster your oysters grow, the more you'll need to handle them. Growth rates are site specific, vary seasonally, and change year to year. So you gotta stay on your toes.
And by 'handle oysters,' we mainly mean: rinse them, agitate them to strengthen their shells, and sort them by size. We call that last bit "sorting the grunts from the runts." Oysters grow at different rates - sometimes this is related to genetics, but most often it's simply a matter of food availability. The oyster at the top of a pile has more access to current (and therefore food) than an oyster in the midst of the pile. If you get too many grunts in the bunch, they take up more and more of the food. So every day, our farmers bring oysters in from the beach, spread them out on a table, and sort them into different size classes, including the "market ready" oysters - or those big enough to ship to restaurants.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. How do we farm oysters??? Two ways.
1) We make our beach as hospitable as possible for wild oyster reproduction. Usually, when oysters reproduce in the wild, they grow into oyster clusters, you can read about that process here. However, sometimes wild oysters turn into pebble sets - which we can sell as singles. If you've ever found a Hama Hama with a rock attached to it - it was likely born in the wild.
2) We grow oysters from seed. We don't have a hatchery at Hama Hama - instead we buy oyster seed from other companies, usually Taylor Shellfish, Hog Island, Coast Seafoods, or Goose Point Oyster Company. We have a nursery system, so we're able to buy very very small seed... sometimes it's as small as sand. The nursery system, aka FLUPSY, lets us keep oysters in tanks with water flowing continuously through them... this means they have more food, so they grow faster. Read more about work in the flupsy here.
(Usually when we buy oyster seed we're buying single seed. Sometimes we buy cluster oyster seed - this is called "spat on shell" - keep that in your back pocket for our next oyster trivia competition!)
We graduate oysters from the nursery to the farms when they're about 1/2 inch big. Some of the oysters we plant on the tumble farm (where they grow into Blue Pools), some we put into bags that lie directly on the beach, and some we scatter directly onto the tideflats. Planting methods vary by farm site. For instance, in areas with lots of wind and wave action, or maybe lots of predators, we'd use a bag on beach method to protect the oysters.
Sometimes, we'll grow oysters in a bag for a year, and then, when the bags get crowded, we'll dump the oysters on the beach for a few months before harvest. This helps strengthen the shell and ensure it has room to feed.
Final thing to know about our farm: we work around the tide.
When the tide goes out, our harvest crew heads out to dig clams, pick oysters, and do beach maintenance. At the end of the tide, the crew ties a buoy to the crates and bags of clams and oysters.
When the tide comes in, the barge crew heads out and uses the buoys to pull the oysters and clams up on deck to take to shore, where they'll be rinsed, sorted, bagged, boxed, and shipped out to your door!
Here are a few more pictures of that process, taken by Navid Baraty. In the first, Neil works on the tumble farm at low tide, unclipping bags from the line and clipping them to a buoy. Later that same day, the barge crew comes along and uses the buoys to locate the bags, or cages, of oysters and clams.