Sheets of galvanized black wire sit in neat piles in Doug McMinn's front yard on Virginia's Middle Peninsula. Nearby, in a covered workshop, two men measure, cut and construct flat, rectangular cages. They are working fast - a new order has just come in for 40 cages.
Seven years ago, when he left his job as director of marine science at Christchurch School, a college preparatory school in Christchurch, VA, to try oyster farming, McMinn never thought he'd be in the oyster equipment business. At first, McMinn's company, the Chesapeake Bay Oyster Co., got cages from Massachusetts and Maine, where aquaculture has thrived for decades. But Virginia required the cages to be 12 inches off the bottom, and the New England cages weren't built to those specifications.
So McMinn built his own, a system where a grower can nestle a bag in one side of the cage for easy opening and culling. Then he sold his product to other aquaculture entrepreneurs in Maryland and Virginia, as well as to home growers. They gave him feedback, and he refined the cages so they no longer require bags. Over the years, he made changes to the design, the materials and the shape. Today, he is the region's largest supplier of oyster cages.
McMinn and his partner, Irv Spurlock, also designed an oyster tumbler that several companies use to give their oysters a rounded, half-shell shape.
About half of his business revenue comes from selling cages. And he is still one of his own best customers. The company has 400 acres of leased bottom in the Rappahannock River, near the tiny town of Wake. That's about 3 million oysters in the water, and a million sold each year. But with the cages on the bottom, no one can see them.
"We wanted to be out of sight, out of mind," McMinn said as he steered his boat over his leases. "We're wide open here, but we ride it out, because we're on the bottom."
McMinn's oysters begin life in a custom-built upweller, then move to the river when they're a half-inch.
A native of Wilmington DE, McMinn fell in love with the Rappahannock as a child on visits to his grandmother's home. When he was 7, he found an arrowhead on the beach. When he was older, he would sit on the Rappahannock's banks, watching the deadrises come in. After graduating from college, he moved there and landed at Christchurch. McMinn decided to get into oyster farming, he said, because he was tired of talking about saving the Bay and wanted to do something.
At first, McMinn's wife helped him in the office. When she became pregnant, McMinn asked his sister, Stephanie, to help out for a bit. She was reluctant; unlike her brother, she had never taken to the area. But she did take to Spurlock; the two are now married.
McMinn continues to focus on improvements to his equipment, as well as tours and demonstrations to get more people into aquaculture.
"We set people up so that they learn from our mistakes," McMinn said. "Our customers can make plenty of money in their first year, unlike us. We killed plenty of oysters in our time."
Editor's note: This is the second set of articles in a three-part series about Maryland and Virginia wading into oyster aquaculture. Read Part One.