Fjordlux farmers Alice and Van Helker really take pride in their product and love working in the intertidal. We love following along as they grow their business and pass their values along to Wayne, their farm's second generation.
We've had the good fortune to partner with them for the past few years, so you might recognize Alice and Van from events around the Puget Sound area... they're regulars at Elliot's Oyster New Year, the Leavenworth Oyster Fest, or the Oyster Rama. Alice also jumps in to teach the occasional oyster class at our farm or at one of our Seattle venues.
Usually we ship their oysters to discerning chefs around the country, but now they're available direct to consumer. We'll be featuring their oyster, the Fjordlux, as our partner farmer variety in our online store's "Operation Farmgate" starting the week of 5/11.
Here's a little bit about them, and a few photos of their farm!
Both Alice and Van come from a maritime background, and both are former NOAA Corps Officers. (NOAA Corps is a branch of service dedicated to NOAA science operations.) While in service they worked far and wide – Alice traversed the Pacific and then served as a nationwide oil spill responder. Van worked aboard a ship in the Gulf of Mexico, and then in the field throughout Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain.
Eventually they moved back home to Washington, and began to dream about starting something of their own. An oyster farm made perfect sense given that they were both interested in sustainable seafood. To learn more about bivalves Alice joined the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, a non-profit dedicated to restoring native marine species such as the Olympia oyster.
In 2017, nearly five years after they initially got serious about starting a farm, they had their first commercial harvest. Their farm is located in the northern stretches of Hood Canal where the water stays relatively cool all summer. The cold water temps mean the oysters fatten later in the spring, but stay nice and firm all throughout the summer.
How They Farm & What They've Learned:
We lightly tumble our oysters early on, then transition to bag-on-beach as they grow in size. The tumbling nudges our oysters into developing a deeper shell than they otherwise would if they were grown entirely on beach, but the time on the beach gives an opportunity for the oysters to express their own distinct nature.
In our farming, we've learned that some "pests" can actually be a tasty blessing. A particularly bad mussel set in our oyster bags last summer meant extra work stripping mussels clusters off our oysters, but we were compensated with a reward kept us fed for months!
We've also learned that oyster farming takes place between the extremes, and you've got to adapt to that. In a literal sense of extreme, farming happens between extreme low and high tides. You'll be looking down at your farm one moment, then six hours later it's 12 feet under water. In another sense of extreme, sometimes farming happens on nights when it's freezing cold and wet and blowing 50 knots. Sometimes its sunny and 80 degrees. Oyster farming is just working with the forces of nature, whatever that brings!
Favorite thing about farming oysters:
One of the things that attracted us to oyster farming in the first place is the ability to work outside, get exercise, and be on the water. We also really like how engaging and satisfying it is to work in nature. We’re necessarily aware of what the tides are and the weather forecast is, but there is also always activity at the farm that catch our attention.
For example, in the bird world right now a killdeer just hatched her eggs. So, there are two little fluff ball killdeer chicks bopping around nearby. With birds of prey, there has been a lot of eagle and osprey action lately (including disagreements with crows). Then there are the seagulls, still running their usual program of dropping cockles and clams all over the place.
Check out the Fjordlux flavor profile.
The Low Down
Favorite way to cook/eat oysters:
Raw oyster on ice with lemon and fresh ground pepper is pretty great, and beautifully simple. But we certainly don’t confine ourselves to just eating them raw; we cook a lot with oysters. We love them fried, especially for oyster tacos (add some rough cut cabbage and chipotle mayo and it can’t be beat), and oyster chowder (we use the Hama Hama PNW chowder as our base recipe). Fried oysters and oyster chowder are also wins with Wayne’s toddler palate, which is huge. We are really lucky to have so many oysters to experiment with, and I can’t think of a preparation we’ve ever actively disliked. Baked, grilled, in a casserole, smoked, with eggs... we think oysters are a good addition to pretty much any savory dish.
Quarantine survival strategy?
Each day is its own separate deal, and brings new challenges, but so far our shelter in place strategy has been to be outside as much as possible, and to stay active. This helps everyone stay on an even keel. We’re still working hard down at the farm growing, but have also found time to complete projects we had been putting off like repairing a deck in the uplands. We've also joined the rest of the world in focusing a lot more on cooking, and being creative with what we have on hand. So, we’ve tried new dishes like wild stinging nettle lasagna, adding chanterelles froze from last fall to oyster chowders, and using things we don’t normally cook with like sunchokes and duck eggs because that’s what’s available at the farm stands. Cooking has been a great comfort and creative outlet.
Importantly, though, we’re grateful for what we have, the kindness and generosity we’ve been witness to, and especially to those working on the frontlines – whatever the industry.