Ernie Nichols always wanted to be Uncle Ernie, although not necessarily the way he is now.
Raising his family in Ellicott City and working in the spacecraft industry in Washington, D.C., Nichols craved long weekends on the Shore, catching crabs.
"When I was a kid, at different times, a neighbor might have a sister who had a place. Very rarely would it be the same place. But we always had some place to chicken-neck."
Nichols decided that, when he was ready, he would build that place, so that it would always be the same place. He would be Uncle Ernie to his children's friends and his neighbors. In 1999, he bought land along the Big Annemessex River outside of Crisfield, MD, and built his dream house. Shortly thereafter, he heard about a program to grow oysters for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The CBF experience proved to Nichols that the water provided more than a place to catch crabs. And two years of state water-testing proved that his river was one of the few nearshore places in the area clean enough to grow oysters for human consumption.
"I knew I could grow oysters. I knew they tasted great. I knew we had good water quality and I knew I was going to be retired in a couple of years," Nichols said.
But what he didn't know is that it would take three years to obtain the necessary permits, a process Nichols describes as "terrible." It wasn't until 2007 that his Tangier Sound Oyster Co. - featuring Uncle Ernie's Tangier Sound Oysters - was legally operating in the state of Maryland. He sold his first oyster in January 2009.
Over the past few years, Nichols has learned what not to do. His first year, he said, he killed 35,000 oysters. Every time he opened a bag, there were more dead ones. A grower friend in Virginia suggested drying out the bags of oysters for a short period of time and then putting them back in the water. That solved the problem.
Nichols also learned he couldn't rely on his wife, Bridget, for all of the labor. He hired a couple of biology majors from Salisbury University to do the heavy lifting.
He doesn't want to get too big - his goal is to sell 1,000 - 2,000 oysters a week. He's done almost no marketing, but word has spread - Uncle Ernie's Tangier Sound Oysters are on the menu at Ryleigh's, Gertrude's and Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, and the Henlopen City Oyster House in Lewes, DE.
No doubt, Nichols owes his success to persistence. But he is also lucky to have had a full-time job and retirement income. He won't get rich, but he will stay busy.
"It's been said that, once people find out you have oysters, you sell them all. And that's been true," he said. "I sell every oyster I can grow."
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.