When I decided to purchase my first set of oyster seed in the summer of 2011, I had none of our farming logistics figured out. However, I didn’t want to wait a full year for the next season to plant our first vintage. I say this especially since it takes the oysters a full 18-24 months to reach market size. I wanted to find out as quickly as possible, if I could actually successfully grow oysters on the old Anderson’s Neck oyster beds. So I decided it was time to get on with it and just figure it out as I went along.
The first problem we had to address in raising oysters for the premium half shell market, is how we were going to solve the cage riddle. The baby oysters must be placed in cages so that the oysters don’t suffocate from excess sedimentation caused by poor farming topsoil management practices and development in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The cages are also effective at preventing hog-nosed rays from eating all your baby oysters. However, if you use the most efficient form of low profile cage, you must have a crane to lift the oyster cages out of the water. Since the cages have two levels, are 3’X4’ in size, and can weigh upwards of 850 pounds when fully covered in marine organisms, you need a big crane, and preferably a power winch to go along with it. Since all the cages won’t be in one spot, the crane needs to be mobile or attached to a boat, so you can move from cage to cage. We had none of this. No boat. No crane. No winch. No electric power to operate the winch. No plan. Nada. Zippo. Zilch. All we had was a half mile long pier that crossed a hundred acre salt marsh and two islands. The pier ultimately extended out into the York River for approximately 250 feet over the old oyster beds. This was a big problem. How was I going to lift the cages out of the water so the oysters could be worked and harvested?
I had none of this figured out, but went ahead and ordered oyster seed and the cages to contain them. When the oyster seed was ready to be picked up, Laura and I drove to collect what looked like a small football sized bag of oyster seed and a bunch of cages, rope, and anchors. We brought our very expensive baby oysters and supplies back to The Neck, trying to keep the oysters cool in the process. When we arrived, I had the joy of transporting the cages one at a time down our half mile long dock. Did I mention I had no wagon or crew to assist me in this process at the time? I made 10 round trips which was approximately 10 miles total with an enormous cage balanced on my head each time. Oh yes, and it just so happened to be 105 degrees that day and you could fry an egg on the dock. Well I finally got everything out to the end of the pier but I believe I was a full two inches shorter than when I started the process. While I was cussing my way up and down the dock, Laura cut down all our mesh bags to size and affixed them with steel clips so we could fill them with oyster seed. This unfortunately was only the first step and I already felt like I had run a full marathon.
Next came the big screw, of anchors that is. The cages are supposed to be connected together by a 250 foot mooring line which is anchored to the seafloor by huge hex anchors on each end of the line. I had to get these anchors into the seafloor. So I waded out into the York River bath water and screwed for the next hour or so. Everything seems to be more difficult when you are doing it the first time and you are suffering from heat exhaustion. While I was screwing these enormous hex anchors into the river bottom in the stifling heat, curiously my mind began to wander: “What in the hell are these stupid anchors for? I haven’t seen a ripple in the water this entire God forsaken afternoon and these cages weigh a ton. They aren’t going anywhere. This whole anchor and rope assembly system is overkill. I am about to die of heatstroke. Lord Jesus, I want a beer. Make that several beers. Did I just pray to Jesus for beer? I think I am going delirious.” Nevertheless, I stuck with it and managed to screw the anchors into the river bottom and connect the mooring rope. Laura and I filled up the bags with seed, closed them up, and placed the bags in the cages. Next we dropped the cages in the water and clipped the cages to the mooring rope. I dragged myself out of the water, found a tiny patch of shade, and started to mentally prepare myself for the walk back. Somehow I managed to get to my feet and stumble back across the dock to the mainland while Laura made sure I didn’t fall off the dock into the marsh.
Thankfully Laura loaded everything into the truck and offered to drive her sorry excuse for an oyster farmer husband back to Richmond. Mother Nature had just kicked my butt. I was exhausted and simply could not cool down. I don’t think I ever remember being that tired and hot. To make matters worse, Laura and I were supposed to be on vacation at the Outer Banks that day, but we delayed our trip to plant our first vintage of oyster seed. Boy was that a rude awakening. Welcome to the world of farming Mr. Hild. And all I was thinking about was how in the heck am I going to get those dumb cages out of water? Laura reassured me: “Let’s just go to the beach, I am sure you will figure something out.” So we made it back to Richmond and I took a semi-cold shower to refresh myself. I finally started to come out of my funk and Laura and I went out to dinner at the Blue Goat to celebrate our inaugural planting. We had done it! That wasn’t too bad. Now we can tell everyone we are officially oyster farmers. Alright, this is great!
Well, little did we know that Mother Nature wasn’t done with us quite yet. A little storm called Hurricane Irene was brewing in the Atlantic and was headed our way before we had even gotten our first seed in the water. We didn’t realize any of this at the time. Totally oblivious, we headed down to the Outer Banks for our annual beach vacation basking in the glow of our successful first planting. Corona time, baby! Well during the end of our vacation, we first started to hear about Hurricane Irene and its projected path was headed straight for Virginia.
We will have more to share on Irene in our next blog post. Stay tuned for further details!