It sits in its shell, a quivering seabooger, swimming in its own brine. It will be gone before I have the chance to rest my cocktail fork on the plate. Gulp! A memory now, the faint taste of salt and sea lingers briefly as I consider the remaining half dozen. Two years to harvest, two seconds to consume. That’s the short, happy story of the oyster, but for the folks that take them from spat to shell to the plate, the story goes much deeper.
Virginia has experienced a major resurgence in oyster production over the past few years, and the industry continues to grow. According to a press release from Governor McAuliffe’s office last week, “Virginia’s oyster harvest jumped another 25 percent last year, surging past 500,000 bushels, the most in nearly a generation.”
But Virginia oyster cultivation has a long way to go before it will ever reach the numbers of its estimated former 17th-century glory. The current oyster population represents only 1% of its pre-industrialization numbers, due to over-harvesting, pollution, and disease. Recently, history and tradition have met with preservation and innovation, at the hands of folks like Anderson’s Neck Oyster Company, Shooting Point Oyster Company, Rappahannock River Oysters and several others in an attempt to revitalize the economy and ecology of the Chesapeake Bay.
Shooting Point Oyster Company — The Gallivans
Tom and Ann Arsenieu Gallivan, owners of Shooting Point Oyster Company, are never far from the water. Nestled in the hamlet of Bayford, the Gallivan home overlooks Shooting Point, at the mouth of Nassawadox Creek. They farm many of their oysters here, where the waters of the Atlantic and the Eastern Shore mingle to create a balance of saltiness and sweetness in their Nassawadox Salts.
Balance is essential to the Gallivans. Each day is an exercise in balance: from the production of oysters and clams to the division of responsibilities between Tom and Ann. Tom is up with the sun; he’s remotely managing a six-man team already on the water while tumbling and grading oyster seed. He’s already checked on the pumps in the nursery and the orders on the fax machine. Tom must stay tuned in to the weather, incoming orders, and other factors all day, staying flexible to take care of business as it comes in.
Meanwhile Ann, a well-educated aquaculturist, is CEO and hatchery manager of JC Walker Brothers, “a very large, vertically-integrated company with hatchery and nursery facilities.” Under Ann’s direction, the company produces somewhere around 150 million clams each year. She’s earned a reputation as one of the top hatchery managers in the industry.
Tom describes the way Ann manages her dual roles with obvious respect: “Annie has a ton of responsibility with JCWB; there are a number of companies who are very dependent on the clam seed she produces, and [she] has to run all the other aspects of JCWB. She’s also involved in every major decision on the oyster farm, helps us whenever we need it on the water and in the nursery, and handles the bookkeeping responsibilities. Last night I was washing seed at 7:00 PM as she was doing payroll…Farm life–it never ends, but we love it.”
Anderson’s Neck Oyster Company — The Hilds
Michael and Laura Dyer Hild take a more directorial approach to oyster farming. They oversee operations at Anderson’s Neck Oyster Co from their Church Hill home, trusting daily operations to a team of three dedicated students: “They’re at the farm each and every day, putting in the blood sweat and tears,” says Michael. “Were it not for them and their hard work, we would not have what we do.”
For Michael, founder and CEO of mortgage lender Livewell Financial and self-described serial entrepreneur, “mortgages are what pays the bills; oysters are what feed the soul.” Michael paints a very Wes Anderson picture of his early years, during which he inherited a curiosity for the natural world during birding expeditions with his father: “I’m the kid, at eight years old, looking for a great horned owl in the trees.”
The Hilds came to the Eastern Shore thinking “vacation home.” Little did they know that they would become the current stewards of Anderson’s Neck, caring for 300 acres of land and 2.5 miles of waterfront. Michael explains they couldn’t resist the opportunity to preserve a part of the Chesapeake Bay: “We thought, ‘wow what an awesome piece of VA history!’ We knew we could prevent it from being developed by buying it.”
An autodidact with no formal education in marine science, Michael read up on everything related to the Eastern Oyster–history, science, preservation, and practical study: “I’m a bit of a weird bird. Once I see something I’m interested in, I just can’t get it out of my head. I go in full research mode and try to learn from as many people that know about it to garner as much info as I can.”
He quickly established himself as a well-respected expert, raising oysters from seed to shell, using a unique method that Michael describes proudly: “We place the seed in solar-powered floating upwellers, where the tiny oyster babies are in a protected environment. Here they can feed and grow on nutrient-rich water. Upwellers provide the ideal environment given that the seed is protected from the wind and waves of the York River, and the nutrient rich water allows the oysters to grow quickly.”
Anderson’s Neck eschews the traditional bottom aquaculture, used by many of their peers, in favor of floating cages which avoid excess sedimentation and predators. The process is much more costly and involves even more red tape in what is already a heavily-regulated industry, but Michael feels confident the results are worth the effort.
The environment, the economy, and the food
The Chesapeake Bay gets its name from the Eastern oyster, aka Crassostrea virginica; the Native American Algonquins called it “Chesepioc,” translating to “great shellfish bay.” A keystone species, the oyster acts as a filter feeder, sucking in water and filtering plankton and detritus. Each oyster can filter over a gallon of water per hour! By itself! Like a boss!
The Anderson’s Neck crew estimates having filtered nearly 35 BILLION gallons of water since opening their farm in 2012: “We take conservation seriously. Dutch and Co. had an oyster celebration for the first 10 billion gallons…We’re going to really celebrate at 50 billion.”
Coupled with the ecological impact is a staggering economic effect. According to Governor McAuliffe’s press release, “The ripple effects through the economy from last year’s harvest resulted in an estimated $58.4 million in economic value.”
“Through the efforts of a number of growers like me and folks like Rappahannock Oyster Co beating the Virginia oyster drum, we are now considered a quality oyster,” Tom Gallivan explains. Now is the perfect time for oyster farmers to come together as one voice, representing their own interests as small business owners and conservationists. Tom and Ann are very involved in politics on this level, working with farmers and specialists to create a growers association: “Doug McMinn of Chesapeake Bay Oyster Co. and I have long advocated for a growers association and now we have one – Shellfish Growers of Virginia with Mike Oesterling, formerly of VIMS and Sea Grant, as our Executive Director.”
A small Sam Rust Seafood truck rides along the length of the Eastern Shore on Wednesday afternoon. By Thursday morning, chefs at The Roosevelt, Lemaire, and Heritage are accepting their orders and preparing the fresh seafood for that evening’s menus. It would be prohibitively expensive for farmers like Tom Gallivan to get their oysters to Richmond any other way. The fuel costs and time away from the farm would mean higher prices for customers and limited access for chefs.
Bruce Edmonds is a third-generation seafood distributor. His grandfather started Sam Rust Seafood in 1938, and Bruce has been a part of the business since 1982 when he started working for the company at the age of 14. He’s witnessed the evolution of dining trends over the past 30 years: “Right now, everything is about farm-to-table. We’re the ones that connect these farms to the table efficiently and at a low cost.”
The company deploys small trucks across Virginia and into West Virginia and Maryland, delivering a range of seafood from shellfish to tuna loin to cod from points across the state and country. “One of these small oyster farms might make $10 or $20 on a box of oysters, but it would cost them $100 to get it to Richmond. So, we do it for them.” By combining shellfish and fresh fish from local and national sources, Sam Rust Seafood is able to meet chefs’ demands and keep costs and environmental impact down.
Demand for high-quality cocktail oysters from chefs is one of the factors that has contributed to these farmers’ ability to thrive. Michael Hild attributes his early success to enthusiastic chef support: “Lee at the Roosevelt did a soft opening for Anderson’s Neck before we officially launched. It got us off and running and on the right foot.” Restaurants like The Magpie, Dutch and Co, Saison, The Hardshell, and notably Burger Bach–with an unexpectedly vast oyster selection–consistently offer Virginia oysters on their menus.
These chefs are looking for some specific qualities in their oysters, which influences harvesting practices: “Our oyster is ‘designed’ for a cocktail, half-shell market. We wouldn’t put all the labor in the process for an oyster that’s shucked and thrown into a stew. I love those preparations, but we have a real bias toward eating oysters on the halfshell,” says Michael. Andersons Neck oysters are tumbled every couple of weeks to chip down oyster shells, leading to a cuppy shell that holds its liquor as well as an oyster that can focus on glycogen production, resulting in a plump, sweet oyster.
Michael describes the Eastern oyster as the ”pinot noir of the oyster world,” capable of taking on the unique merroir of its creation the way pinot noir grapes reflect the terroir of their origin. Anderson’s Neck oysters, called Eagle Flats, embody the bright, fresh flavors their name suggests. A rich, pleasantly minerally taste leads to a crisp, slightly salty finish. They are meant to be eaten as unadorned as possible; every time someone puts cocktail sauce on a raw Eagle Flat, Michael Hild cries a little inside. These oysters demand a malty stout accompaniment and little else.
Shooting Point’s two oyster varieties are opposite sides of the same coin. The Shooting Point Salts, grown at the northern end of the famous Hog Island, deliver on their name, with a bold salty brine and green-apple sweetness, suspended in a perfectly cupped honey-colored shell. Nassawadox Salts, harvested from the lower Eastern Shore, embody the concept of balance that’s so essential to the Gallivan’s. Tom says, “Balance is our mantra. Balance between salt and the essence of an oyster, balance between traditions of the past and techniques of today.”