Your oysters have had to do battle to be with you at happy hour -- fighting against the tides of the moon, crustaceous predators, evil sea-sponges -- for near on two years before reaching your multi-tiered seafood platter. Helping these guys survive their odyssey are the unsung heroes of the Oyster trade: the farmers. Yup, oysters are farmed, but there are no tractors and way more saving the planet. To prove it, we talked to a host of half-shell heroes to get the low-down on this salty business.
1. They don't have to feed their livestock
All oysters need is clean water. These guys are at the bottom of the food chain, filter-feeding on algae. It’s literally just the water that's shaping these guys.
2. Oyster farmers get to be as fancy as wine makers
Like French terroir, oyster farmers get merroir. The characteristics of the water imprint on the flavor of the oyster. Mer means "sea" in French, and "terre" means earth or soil. So, yeah, they didn't really think that through.
3. It takes at least two years to harvest an oyster
There's no equivalent of oyster lamb. To get to the 4in market size, it takes 24 months. Factor in that you'll lose about half of every crop you cultivate and it's a serious labor of love.
4. But just three acres worth of oysters is worth six-figures
Sure, that's about 250 thousand oysters, but that small footprint can be worth an impressive $200,000.
5. They're much greener than any other seafood farmers
It takes five pounds of wild fish to produce one pound of edible salmon. Like we said, it takes zero pounds of anything to make oysters. And one oyster can filter about 50 gallons of water a day, which helps keep the whole region healthy.
6. They harvest everything by hand
No machinery or fancy equipment can currently reap an oyster bed -- it's all done the old fashioned way: hiring orphans with quick hands (kidding, OSHA).
7. Growing oysters means helping other critters
It's not enough that they barely need anything to grow; oysters live in cages or racks, providing shelter for other underwater friends like crab and fish.
8. Farmers are helping save the planet
Not only do they absorb carbon and turn it into calcium carbonate to strengthen and grow their shells, the oyster's most impressive feat against climate change is their absorption of nitrogen -- the sleeper greenhouse gas and the third most serious in the lineup of gases that affect our environment. A three-acre oyster farm can account for the nitrogen waste of up to 35 people or one Prince Fielder.
9. These dudes all know and like each other
Here's one sample from our many interviews:
"So, who else'd you talk to for this thing?"
"Well, so far this teacher at the NY Harbor Schoo-
Oyster farming is a really small community and they meet up at conventions every year or parties like the Billion Oyster Party, where farmers from around the US show up with their harvest and get together with oyster enthusiasts to talk and shuck and compare notes. And The Billion Oyster Project is even cooler than the Party because...
10. There's a plan to have one billion live oysters back in New York Harbor in 20 years
The Billion Oyster Project is an ecosystem restoration project that engages public school kids by teaching them about aquaculture. Needless to say, these oysters are NOT fit for consumption and won't be for like, an entire century, but is anyone trying to put a billion extra cows anywhere 20 years from now? Nah.
11. They deal with diseases gnarly enough to wipe out entire species
In the US, peak oyster consumption occurred during the early 1900s. And some biologists estimated that New York Harbor contained half the world's oysters. A parasite came along in the late '50s and hit New York and wiped out 95% of the country's wild oyster reefs, and no, it wasn't the Commies. Farmed oysters (as opposed to wild) have been selectively bred to be impervious to this and other diseases.
12. They have to deal with tides
Imagine if corn farmers had to deal with 6ft to 8ft changes in dirt elevation every day. Normally, farmers like to work on their farms during low tide when the water is about 2ft deep -- which happens early in the morning and late at night. Remember that supermoon we had recently? Yeah, the oyster farmers had a blast with that one.
13. Farmers might have to hack through the ice like a seafaring viking
Sometimes your farm might freeze over completely -- something that’s been happening a lot for the past two years thanks to those pesky polar vortexes. When it's really bad, it could mean staying home and farming another day -- but sometimes it just means that you wake up extra early for a couple of hours of breaking ice any way you can.
14. Oyster farmers are probably crazy -- and we love that
Pete Malinowski, who teaches at the NY Harbor School and grew up on an oyster farm, puts it best. “From my experience,” he begins, “there’s probably not a more challenging or physically demanding or a more rewarding livelihood. If you like being on the water and like working crazy hours and working all year in terrible weather, it might be the job for you.”