The alarm blares at 5:45 a.m., but I needn’t have bothered to set it. Within minutes, heavy footsteps sound on the wooden staircase, clomping upstairs. It is the sound of oyster farmers on their way to grab boxes, boots, buoys and assorted metal tools. Today, I am one, too.
When I met Patrick Hudson at his True Chesapeake Oyster farm at St. Jerome Creek in Southern Maryland a couple of months ago, we began talking about how no two days are alike on an oyster farm. Oyster farmers are riggers — learning from past mistakes, making it up as they go along, hoping that weather and tides work in their favor. With more than a dozen farms operating in Maryland, and many more in neighboring Virginia, Hudson can turn to fellow farmers like Chesapeake Gold’s Johnny Shockley for advice — and he does.
But no two farms are alike. Some are in the open Chesapeake; others, like Hudson’s, are in protected coves. Some use floats on top of the water; others, like Hudson’s, use mostly cages on the bottom.
Hudson invited me to work for the day on his farm to see the rigging for myself. I’ve been writing about oyster farms since 2005, when the first ones began operating in Maryland, even though the law still didn’t allow them in most places. I’d covered their legal troubles in getting leases, their bureaucratic hurdles with the Army Corps of Engineers — and, to a lesser extent, with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources — and the change in the law in 2010 that allowed oyster farming in every county.
I’d visited many farms in both Maryland and Virginia, profiled the hatcheries where the farmers procured seed. I also chronicled the rise of the disease-resistant and fast-growing sterile oyster known as a triploid that revolutionized the industry and grew more than twice as fast as the reproducing diploids. I’d watched oyster farmers lift the cages, count the oysters, box them up and cart them to the refrigeration units.
But I’d never done it myself. So, I agreed, provided that Hudson and his crew treat me just like one of the guys. (There was one other woman, Shannon Hood, who is interning there for the summer). I would do every job on the farm. They could reassign me if I slowed them down, but I at least wanted to try everything.
I had ambitions to rise early and go running, but I barely staggered out of the farm’s guest room at call time. Hudson told me the boat was waiting. I threw on shorts, a T-shirt, a hat and my wader boots, otherwise known as St. Mary’s sneakers.
Hudson offered coffee and doughnuts, but I declined. I didn’t want to delay the work. The job was large: We would be harvesting 15,000 oysters, sorting them by size, tumbling them for shape, washing them for plate appeal, and getting them under refrigeration within a couple of hours of taking them out of the water. There was no time to waste. I had imagined a lot of time in the water. For most of us, there was none. But there was a lot of mud, sweat, grunts and near-scratches from the cages. Despite the doughnuts, the workers said they’d all dropped weight this summer.
We began on the boat. Tyler Sondberg, who manages the farm, has a system in place so he knows the age and relative state of every oyster. Using a rope and pulley system similar to the ones on crab pot boats, Sondberg hoisted the cages out of the water. Each has two trays and two layers of oysters, with about 1,200 in each cage. Along with Hudson, my job was to open the cages, separate the tops from the bottoms and put them on top of the boat. We then took the boat back to the covered deck where the oyster farm operates. We removed oysters from the trays and put them via conveyor belt into a cylindrical machine known as a tumbler.
The next job was to tumble the oysters. The tumbler gives the shells a nice shape and cleans off any attached barnacles, oyster spat, shells or other substrates. It gives the oysters a more uniform look.
Working the tumbler, I wore a pair of protective earmuffs. Sondberg said the neighbors had complained that the boat motor was loud and so the team invested in a quieter one. They are looking into noise-canceling devices to make the tumbler quieter. Hudson, who is planning to provide health insurance for all of his employees, said the neighbors haven’t complained, but making it quieter is the right thing to do for his workers.
After the tumbler, we sorted the oysters by size. True Chesapeake sells three sizes of oysters. Blackjacks go exclusively to Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore, and they are more than 4 inches. They fetch more than 80 cents, but are not the bulk of the business. The Skinny Dippers are True Chesapeake’s mainstay, at 3–4 inches, and fetch about 65 cents each. The Huckleberry is what Hudson calls a cocktail oyster, about 2–3 inches. Hudson handed me a culling hammer with a 3-inch measurement on it. As the oysters moved on a conveyor belt, I picked them up, measured them and put all the Skinny Dippers in a bucket. I also looked for boxes — dead oysters. Those shells we saved for the Oyster Recovery Partnership to help with restoration efforts.
Hudson worked alongside me. He didn’t need the culling hammer. He could eyeball the sizes. He also looked over the smaller oysters and decided which ones would be marketed as Huckleberrys and which ones would return to their cages for another few months of growth.
I liked the sorting. My head is always filled with so many details to keep straight. My stories. My children’s camp schedule. When will I have time to run? Did I make that doctor’s appointment? What am I going to make for dinner? Does that child coming over for the playdate have a nut allergy? But on the line, I could only fit two thoughts: Big. Small. Big. Small. It was oddly calming. And of all the jobs, it was the one I was best at — probably because it required no heavy lifting.
After I had a few full buckets of oysters, Hudson instructed me to count. Put them in buckets of 100 each, after which they would go into boxes for restaurants. Just like the sorting, this job required focus. I tried, but Sondberg found one box that looked too full. Turns out, it had 137 oysters in it!
Once I counted the oysters, Hudson and Sondberg dumped them into a washing tray with a circular chute. Employee Thomas Wolfrey helped. Then, Hood and Robert Witcop washed the oysters through two rinse cycles. It astonished me the difference that washing made. The oysters changed from a muddy gray to a clean white. They looked perfect.
Witcop, who just graduated from St. Mary’s College and was captain of the swim team there, told Hood and me to lift the trays and pour the oysters through the circular chute into the boxes. Hood, who had only been working on the farm a week, managed fine. But I had trouble lifting the trays, and ripped a couple boxes leaning the trays on them. Witcop kindly suggested I stick to power washing. I did, but kept trying to lift the oyster trays again so as not to slow everyone down.
In the meantime, employee Ethan Davis wheeled the boxed oysters into a large walk-in cooler that Hudson had to buy in Atlanta because he couldn’t find one here. Later, distributor J. J. McDonnell, which exclusively sells the True Chesapeake to dozens of restaurants, would pick them up.
Jake Wolf, another St. Mary’s graduate, pulled up the smaller oyster cages that Hudson keeps closer to shore. There, we could see the life that the oyster cages brought to St. Jerome Creek. There was a peeler crab the size of a Frisbee busting through its shell. Lots of minnows swam around. The crew has found a seahorse, a red grouper and many rockfish.
With all 15,000 oysters harvested, we broke for lunch. Afterward, the crew replanted the oysters Hudson decided not to sell and checked on the nursery, where the small seed needed to be washed. My co-workers for the day were in their 20s; at 43, I was tired, but invigorated. Had this job been an option for me post-college, I would have loved to try it.
As it turns out, none of the employees had grown up thinking they wanted to be an oyster farmer. Hudson, a graduate of the prestigious Gilman School in Baltimore and the University of Virginia, was planning to head to law school. Through his father, a Chesapeake Bay Pilot, he met John Lohr, whose family had been in the oyster business for more than a century in Southern Maryland. Lohr owned the property on St. Jerome Creek where True Chesapeake is based. He told the Hudsons that the oysters coming out of that creek were so stellar that, in the 1800s, the federal government studied the waters to see what made them taste so good. He also told the elder Hudson how the oysters died, slowly and then quickly, because of the oyster diseases in the 1970s.
Patrick Hudson Sr. had heard some of those stories before, and he’d seen the decline in the Bay’s water quality in his decades of work as a Bay Pilot. He became interested in oyster farms as a way to bring back the species and help filter the water. The elder Hudson got together a few investors and bought the property from Lohr, who had been leasing it to a different oyster farm. They cleaned it up, talked to the neighbors about the kind of operation they wanted to see, and visited farms in Massachusetts, Maine and Virginia to develop ideas on how to grow.
Hudson said he settled on the bottom cages because neighbors preferred them over the floats that had been there previously and because he thinks the oysters in St. Jerome’s grow better in cages.
At first, the oyster farm was a hobby for Hudson, who was living in the District of Columbia working as a paralegal. In 2013, True Chesapeake made its first sale, and it went big: 10,000 oysters to the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. Celebrity Chef Mike Isabella was cooking at the event for the Maryland Jockey Club. Isabella told the company that their oyster was special. It was then that Hudson and his investors decided that the company could become a full-time enterprise.
True Chesapeake currently has more than 8 million oysters under cultivation, and it sells more than 1 million, making it one of Maryland’s larger farms. Hudson employs eight people and is looking to hire more. His farm is about 8 acres, and he has applied for 30 more.
But Hudson and many other farmers are frustrated by the long wait to obtain a lease and the cumbersome bureaucracy. With the original farm, Hudson said, he had to apply for new leases even though the previous farmer already had oyster leases. Once, when he changed a coordinate at the request of a neighbor, his application was put at the back of the line, costing him six months.
The lack of lease space meant that Hudson had no place to move his oysters when the creek froze over for much of last winter. On my workday, we pulled up a lot of dead oysters. Sondberg and Hudson looked crestfallen. The widespread freezing was an unusual circumstance, but Hudson worries the state and the Army Corps won’t process his applications in time for winter 2016. If the creek freezes over again, it will be a lot of money lost.
Hudson is perhaps most proud of creating jobs in a rural area that lacks opportunity. He points to a beautiful house across the creek where a friend lives. He hopes that Sondberg, who learned oyster-rearing as an intern for the Horn Point Laboratory, will one day live in a place like that with his family. He’s grateful to hear that Witcop and Hood want to start their own farms. And he hopes that, for the sons of local watermen like Ethan Davis, the oyster farm is a path to a sustainable life on the water.
“Any oyster in the water is a good oyster in the water,” Hudson said. “When I see someone sitting in an office, I think, ‘thank God that’s not me. The world did not need another lawyer. But maybe it did need another oyster farmer.”