SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — “We work on not just producing a lot of oysters, but a lot of high-end oysters,” Conor McNair, cofounder of N. SEA. Oyster Co., said during a warm spring morning last week.
N. SEA. crew were pulling up to the shellfish farmer’s latest expansion, The Oyster Barn, at 674 Old Landing Rd. in Hampstead. In its most basic function, the barn is a processing facility that will help streamline the company’s growing business.
“I’m literally down here at the barn right now, pulling oysters out of the water with the crew behind me, just throwing bags up in the air,” he said.
McNair — who owns the company with his brother, James, and wife Alyssa — sells them wholesale to restaurants, as well as direct to customers. At the barn, people can now see the N. SEA. process first-hand, he said.
A few picnic tables are placed nearby, allowing folks to bring their own beer, shuck what they buy on site and enjoy with friends.
“We are really focused on raw oysters,” McNair said.
But people can also buy his family’s mignonette and barbecue sauce to top them.
McNair comes from a line of oyster farmers; his uncle operates Hog Island Oyster Farm in the Napa Valley region (it was featured on season one, episode 13 of Jon Favreau’s “The Chef Show,” McNair said).
N. SEA. also ships its shellfish to restaurants in San Francisco, as well as Atlanta, D.C. and Charleston, not to mention locally.
Over the past year, McNair said his product has been recognized as one of four of the nation’s top craft oysters by sommelier and educator Julie Qiu (most known by her handle @inahalfshell on Instagram). The company’s “Dukes of Topsail Sound” oysters also were acknowledged by Garden and Gun in its state-by-state guide to the top 35 best oysters in the South.
It takes about a year and a half to harvest a luxury oyster, McNair informed. The crew plants the babies when they’re the size of a rice grain or quinoa. The oysters are handled up to 15 times, as crew lower and raise baskets of oysters in the ocean and toss them around in a tumbler.
McNair said N. SEA. is one of three farms to follow the Australian long-run system: “We use a cable that’s suspended on the water, so when the tide has dropped, the oysters in the bag become visible and they hang out to dry.”
This creates a meatier texture in the shellfish.
As the tide comes back in, the oysters are submerged again.
Each oyster has a one in 1,000 chance to make it in the wild, McNair explained. He considers himself a steward to merely better their chances of survival.
“They do so much for our environment, but at the same time, they’re so susceptible to their evolution,” he said.
The shellfish are integral to the marine ecosystem, as they create habitats for other species and purify water, cleaning up to 45 gallons per oyster a day. They can also help control algal blooms to prevent the accumulation of cells becoming toxic. And oysters mitigate shoreline erosion, with shell reefs often used for stabilization.
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“So as an oyster farm, you just try to play that game, play the odds: Can you get more to survive?” McNair rhetorically asked.
A lucrative year for an oyster farmer means 50% of the crop makes it to market. The seed isn’t the costliest portion of the process; the labor is. It takes a boat to access the acreage McNair uses to harvest, not to mention hands willing to work in conditions that aren’t always amenable. Oyster farmers are at the mercy of the ocean and the weather.
“It’s salt and sun and one of the harshest environments on the planet,” he said. “We are used to being in the sun for eight hours a day sometimes.”
The UNCW grad — who, along with his partners, studied environmental science and marine biology — said even though they planted four million seeds last year, only over a half-million could be sold.
“But we’re expanding every year,” he said.
Since 2017, N. SEA. has doubled its growth annually; thus, necessitating the barn even more. While the structure will allow the storage and sale of more oysters — “we were selling out of our townhome for years,” he said — the educational opportunity it will provide the community is more exciting to McNair.
“We’re going to be able to have the conversation that we’re having, you know?” he said. ”There’s so many question marks about oyster farms and how oysters are so immensely good for the environment.”
Yet, long-term he sees the barn procuring its own ABC permits to serve beer with its oysters. McNair wants to create a culinary and agritourism destination with N. SEA. and the Oyster Barn, which he calls a one-of-a-kind farm stand.
The barn’s opening party, scheduled for May 1, already is sold out. It will showcase N. SEA. oysters and highlight food from Lawrence BBQ, as well as drinks from End of Days Distillery and Tru Colors, with music played by Folkstone Stringband.
“But it’s really about experiencing oyster farming,” McNair clarified of the barn and all of its future events, which will include chef dinners. “Showing people what we do. We’re building it in slow phases — at first just serving oysters on the half shell, but, eventually, there will be a whole culinary experience around it.”
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