Growing the ‘best damn oyster’: Inside the effort to get local oyster farming up to speed

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The Masonboro sound region of the Intracoastal Waterway. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)
The Masonboro sound region of the Intracoastal Waterway. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

WILMINGTON – Oyster farming is sustainable, environmentally beneficial and potentially lucrative. So why doesn’t North Carolina have more oyster farms?

“There’s no reason not to do this,” said Tim Holbrook, owner of the Masonboro Reserve Oyster Co., “They’re good for the environment, they’re delicious. And it’s not a bad office.

“And yet,” he added, “most of the oysters people eat in North Carolina are from somewhere else.”

Tim Holbrook. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)
Tim Holbrook. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Port City Daily spoke with Holbrook about the state of local oyster farming while traveling to Holbrook’s oyster farm, four acres located in the estuarial waters of the Intracoastal Waterway. Situated between spoil islands and Masonboro Island, the location is ideal, according to Holbrook.

“This is the cleanest water in the southeast,” he said. “It might be the most perfect water for oysters in the United States. It was one of the first national estuaries. That was done to recognize how pristine this area is.”

Holbrook with a bag attached to a Lentz system. The technique holds the oysters out of the water during low ides, killing sponges and other pests that can damage the oysters. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)
Tim Holbrook with a bag attached to a Lentz system. The technique holds the oysters out of the water during low ides, killing sponges and other pests that can damage the oysters. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Holbrook’s location is good, but not unique. North Carolina has ample aquatic acreage with potential for oyster farming. Despite this, other states are vastly out-producing North Carolina.

According to Chuck Weirich, who works on aquaculture research and education for NC Sea Grant, Virginia and North Carolina had the same oyster production in 2005, about $250,000 a year. By 2016, Weirich said Virginia’s state subsidizing and reduced regulations had helped producers bring in $16 million, while North Carolina had barely reached $500,000. Now North Carolina is trying to catch up, and Holbrook is at the cutting edge of research to find out how.

“I’m involved with several studies right now,” Holbrook said, “but the one you see here at the farm is for NC Sea Grant. We’re experimenting with different culture methods, basically trying to see which produces the best oyster. Which cultures fastest, which produce the most disease-resistant oyster. And of course which tastes the best. In short, how do we culture the best damn oyster for the area. That’s what we need to know to get more oysters to market, to catch up with out-of-state producers.”

Tim Holbrook, bringing in floating cages for harvest. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)
Tim Holbrook, bringing in floating cages for harvest. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Holbrook has worked with both Sea Grant and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington’s aquaculture research labs. In addition to research on perfecting a strain of the eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica), Holbrook has also delved deeper into the the environmental impact of oysters.

A mature eastern oyster can filter 50 gallons of water daily; Holbrook's farm has over 2 million. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)
A mature eastern oyster can filter 50 gallons of water daily; Holbrook’s farm has over 2 million. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

“Each oyster filters about 50 gallons (of water) a day, but also nitrogen pollution as well as particulate matter and algae. What does that mean? Well, You’ve seen those photos of red tides, were the algae goes crazy and you can’t even get in the water? Well, Oysters eat that.”

Holbrook said he has also been introduced to the concept of nitrogen credits.

“I’d never heard of a nitrogen bank before, and I never would have had I not been involved in these studies,” he said. “It’s similar to carbon credits. Say you’re a hog farmer, you’re putting excess nitrogen into the soil. That’s going getting picked up by rain and running off into the waterways, into the Cape Fear, into the ocean. There’s regulations and fines and all that, but the farmer can purchase nitrogen credits from a nitrogen bank. And where do those credits come from? From oyster farms, like mine. We can generate thousands of dollars in credit per acre.”

Though oysters filter pollution from the water, breaking it down into harmless byproducts, they remain safe to eat – a common concern for those planning on eating oysters.

“You could grow these things to maturity in a sewer,” Holbrook said. “Culture them to full size, transfer them out here to the sound for three weeks and they’d be safe to eat.”

'I ask my chefs not to put anything on the oysters,' Holbrook said. 'If you did put anything on there, I would say two eye-droplets of gin [Holbrook recommends Hendrick’s for its cucumber notes] and some salmon eggs. You could use flying fish roe, too.' (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)
‘I ask my chefs not to put anything on the oysters,’ Holbrook said. ‘If you did put anything on there, I would say two eye-droplets of gin [Holbrook recommends Hendrick’s for its cucumber notes] and some salmon eggs. You could use flying fish roe, too.’ (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)
On the topic of eating, Holbrook was excited. “The science is important, of course. The ecology is very important. But I’m growing these to eat. That’s what it’s all about.”

Holbrook sells his oysters to local chefs, including Dean Neff at Pinpoint, James Doss at RX and Keith Rhodes at Catch. Holbrook said that a significant number of Americans do not eat oysters, demand is still very high.

“I’ve got a couple of restaurants that will buy as many as I can get out of the water. The chefs want local, but production isn’t up to demand yet,” he said.

Increasing production is a major part of Holbrook’s mission. Helping harvest recently were “interns,” as Holbrook called them. They are the “next generation of farmers,” who Holbrook hopes will help expand and improve the state’s oyster farming.

“I could work six days a week and not meet the demand of the area,” Holbrook said. “And I wouldn’t have time to pursue research grants, give talks, go to council meetings, help people with applications. No one person could do it all by themselves.”

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Joseph and Jay Mahoney, part of Holbrook’s ‘next generation,’ docking alongside Holbrook’s pontoon. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Father and son team Jay and Joseph Mahoney were two of Holbrook’s interns on hand; they had been learning the ropes from Holbrook for some time. He was also joined by Conor MacNair, who helps prepare seafood for Farmin’ Brand. MacNair said, “there must be a better term for oyster apprentice, but that’s what I am. I love this stuff, and I just want to learn more.”

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Conor MacNair, flipping a floating cage. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Holbrook has also been working with Tom Cannon, who is in the process of applying for his own lease for an oyster farm. Holbrook said his efforts, whether with the legal paperwork or the hands-on tricks of harvesting, stem from the underlying ethos he sees as essential to oyster farming.

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Tom Cannon works to sort oysters. ‘I love this. It’s everything I love about North Carolina. Like a permanent summer camp, except I can cuss.’ (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

“It’s collegial. It’s just in the nature of the oyster business,” Holbrook said. “Up in Maine, you see lobstermen with shotguns. If they catch someone else with their traps, they’re going to unload on them. When the lobster trade got rough, a lot of them started oyster farming. The same guys who used to be ready to shoot each other, now they’re friends. Now they’re helping each other out.”

The same ethos extends from Holbrook’s daily operations – showing new farmers the ropes – to his DIY approach to equipment. Holbrook’s homemade oyster sorter, which he built for around $600, could save a new farmer as much as $18,000 in equipment. His involvement with Sea Grant takes the same attitude.

“Whatever we learn here, other farmers will be able to duplicate in their own area,” Holbrook said. “This information isn’t secret, and it’s not for sale, it’s for everybody. It’s collegial, like I said. It’s part of why I love the oyster business.”

And what about those oysters? For many fans of sustainable sea food, local is often celebrated for the sake of local. According to Holbrook, his oysters should also be celebrated because they are some of the world’s best.

Holbrook is quick to point out that his oysters have a unique flavor. Gesturing south along the waterway, Holbrook said, “that’s my friend Al [Smeilus], down there. My oysters are going to tastes different from those, and a lot different from something from Topsail. Forget James Bay or Ocracoke.”

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Conor MacNair tasting the fruit of his labor. ‘People say if you’re farming oysters on the west coast you’re growing a [expletive] oyster. I don’t wanna go all east coast, west coast. I just prefer the eastern oyster. It might take a little longer, but it’s much better.’ (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)
Referring to the Pangea flavor wheel, Holbrook described his oysters. (You can check out the flavor wheel at Pangea’s website.)

“It’s salt, right up front. But then it’s buttery,” he said. “After the butter, there’s some cheese. And then, you have to wait, but after about 30 seconds there’s the finish. It’s iron, but not a metallic iron, chefs tell me it’s the iron of a rare steak.

“All up and down the east coast, it’s champagne,” Holbrook added. “This is the only oyster you could have with a glass of red. If I was a sommelier, I would really blow a customer’s mind and say, ‘take the oyster, wait for that bloody steak finish, then drink a red.’’

Holbrook is proud of his oysters, but gives the credit to the special ecosystem.

“I know all the oyster producers on the east coast, all the big producers on the west coast too. I’d stand my oysters up against any of them,” he said. “I’d stand my oysters up against the best. And it’s not because I’m smarter, or a better farmer, or using a better strain. It’s the water. It’s where we are.”

VIDEO: Watch Holbrook’s DIY oyster-sorter at work. Said Holbrook, “this thing saves me two days’ worth of work, every time I use it.” Holbrook plans to share his blueprints online when he perfects the design.

 

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