Monk's Cove Oysters
For Pat Ross, it all started in an oyster bar in Washington, D.C. The Bourne native noticed oysters on the menu that were farmed in Onset, near his childhood home. “It was surprising to see because I had no idea there was even an oyster farm there. It’s a stone’s throw from our house,” Pat remembers. But that chance encounter of Cape Cod oysters served in the nation’s capitol started his wheels turning.
Pat began talking to his fiancée Jenny about moving back to Bourne and starting their own oyster farm. At the time, they were living in Boston and planning their wedding. Neither had any background in aquaculture, or even fishing. Both are in their mid-thirties and have full-time day jobs; Jenny in sportswear design and Pat in the health insurance industry. Oysters were new territory for them.
Pat and Jenny started taking classes in shellfish farming and paying more attention to menus. They asked a lot of questions, but didn’t get many clear answers. Pat recalls, “When we tried to get definitive answers from people on how to do this, the answer we got most often was ‘it depends’, which was really frustrating.”
After months of “poking and prodding” and talking to people, Jenny saw an article in this magazine about Moon Shoal Oysters in Barnstable (Edible Cape Cod, Summer 2010, No. 25). “It looked so great,” she reminisces. “Reading about the growers and their connection to the Cape and the ocean, it was definitely one of the moments that made me see Pat’s ‘post-D.C.-oyster-bar vision’ in color.” They decided to go for it. In 2010 they moved to Bourne full time and applied for an oyster farm lease.
But the history of oyster farming in Bourne did not present an easy path to follow. If approved, they would be reviving a local industry that was a casualty of twentieth century “progress”.
About 100 years ago there were at least 50 oyster farms in Bourne, along what was then the Monument River. Monument River oysters were famous for their quality and size. Then came the Cape Cod Canal. Construction of the seven-mile waterway started in 1909 and had an immediate impact on the oyster farms in Buzzards Bay. According to an annual report put out by the Massachusetts State Commissioners of Fisheries and Game in 1912, the dredging of the Cape Cod Canal caused considerable harm to the oyster grants in Buzzards Bay. Twenty-six civil suits were filed claiming that the construction damaged or destroyed oyster farms near the mouth of the canal in Bourne and Wareham. Because Bourne straddles the entrance to the canal, it was especially affected.
That was just the beginning. The higher salinity of the water coming through the canal changed the flavor of the oysters, which were accustomed to more brackish water. Along with higher salinity came diseases new to the Buzzards Bay oyster population. By the mid-twentieth century, the oyster industry was taking a hit nationwide. Oyster diseases wiped out most of the farms along the Atlantic coast. These factors, along with the increase in sewage, lawn fertilizer and industrial dumping that followed, degraded oyster habitat and nearly destroyed the entire U.S. oyster industry. By 1970, Atlantic oyster farms produced just 1% of their historic levels.
Cape Cod presents an additional problem for oyster farmers—public opinion. With so many waterfront homes in Cape towns, many abutters don’t like having a view of oyster equipment out their windows. According to local historian Skip Barlow, “People who have houses built along the water don’t want to look out the window and see farmers. They want to see sailboats.” This “social problem” goes back a long way, even to the days of President Grover Cleveland’s summer White House in Bourne’s Gray Gables neighborhood. “President Cleveland was one of the first complainers. He wrote a letter to the selectmen and even though he was a sitting president they chose not to pay attention. People are not supportive of change.”
Tim Mullen, director of Bourne’s Department of Natural Resources, confirms the problem has deep roots. “Whenever there was an oyster farm application over the past 15 or 20 years, people would come out of the woodwork to speak against it,” he admits.
Most oyster farmers on the Cape use one or two of several methods to grow oysters. Baby oysters can be planted in bottom-covering nets, mesh bags or wire cages to protect them from predators. The enclosures allow the water to flow freely around the shellfish and can be floated in the water column, set on underwater tables or racks, or placed on the sea floor. Depending on the method, some equipment can be visible on the surface, some only at low tide, and some are completely out of sight. Pat and Jenny went with the last option. They chose a technique called “rack and bag” to house their oysters, so the farm is entirely below the water’s surface and, except for a few buoys, not visible from land. They also found a location away from waterfront homes in a secluded spot called Monk’s Cove.
2012 was a banner year for Pat and Jenny. Not only did they get married, their oyster farm application was approved. Monk’s Cove Oysters became the first oyster farm in Bourne in over 20 years. “Recently there has been more support for aquaculture,” says Mullen about the change in public acceptance. “People are buying in to the ‘self-sustaining filter feeders’ idea.” But he says he was also swayed by the Monk’s Cove business plan. “After meeting Pat we were impressed,” says Mullen. “He put his time in and really did his homework. We liked their method and the location of the farm. It’s one of the few locations in town that isn’t going to bother anybody.”
Now into their third season, Monk’s Cove is definitely a “mom-and-pop” operation with only two workers: Jenny and Pat. But they have benefitted greatly from the support of friends and their community. On a typical weekday they both still rise well before dawn to commute to their workplaces in Boston and Providence. Oyster farming happens on the weekends and days off.
On a sunny morning in July I go out with Pat and Jenny on their boat, the Aw, Shucks!, to see the farm. We walk from their home through a friendly neighbor’s yard and use his dock to load gear onto the boat. The neighbor, Wayne Weber, is relaxing on his porch as we go by. “These guys are unique. They are pioneers,” he proclaims as he waves to us. “Who goes and starts a family oyster business anymore?”
The farm is a 2.9-acre grant off of Toby’s Island in Bourne. The 15-minute boat ride is a universe away from Pat and Jenny’s usual workday commute. As we motor out on this bright, calm morning, Jenny takes a deep breath. “There’s a good smell out here, kind of a sweet and salty smell.” She looks around at the sparkling water and an osprey flies overhead. “I like my job, but you can’t beat this.”
You wouldn’t know we had arrived at the farm except for a few buoys marking off the location of the oyster cages below. “It’s sort of an invisible farm. People don’t really know what we are up to,” chuckles Pat, as he maneuvers the boat up to a line. “People come out here on kayaks and ask us what we are doing,” adds Jenny. “We tell them there is an oyster farm here, but they have no idea.”
Below us are 115 oyster cages, each housing 250-500 growing oysters. The couple plants 300,000 babies each season and hope, if everything goes well, to harvest half that number. They figure it will take about three years for the oysters to get to the three-inch regulation harvest size, but as they are finding out, it all depends—on the weather, on the water and on luck.
Oyster farming is a lot like farming on land, at least as far as the terminology goes. They “plant seeds” of baby oysters, and look forward to harvesting the first “crop” this summer. The juveniles need to be thinned out constantly to give them room to grow. “We do a lot of weeding,” laughs Jenny, as they haul up wire cages to pick through.
Monk’s Cove oysters, and all oysters grown in Massachusetts, are the species Crassostrea virginica, or Eastern Oyster, that are native to the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico. Like wine, oysters have terroir: characteristics of the geology, climate and environment that are expressed in the flavor. Salinity, temperature, currents and depth of the water all play a part in creating a flavor unique to the exact spot where the oyster lives. Even oysters growing a few feet from one another can have distinctly different flavors.
Other local waters, like Cape Cod Bay, will produce an oyster that tastes different from a Buzzards Bay oyster. “Buzzards Bay is very blustery, so it’s good for the oysters,” Jenny explains. “The harder they have to work to stay closed, the more meat and muscle they develop. It also affects the cup shape and makes it nice and deep. They are very fit! ”
Pat scoops a harvest-ready Monk’s Cove oyster out of a bag and opens it up for me to try. The flavor opens up in the bottom of my mouth with a vibrant salt and mineral grassiness. It is, without a doubt, the freshest oyster I have ever had—and one of the tastiest. I give a sigh of pleasure as I toss the empty shell back over the side and briefly imagine myself as a Cape Cod oyster farmer. I can see the appeal. Although we have none on the boat, Pat also brews his own beer, which he likes with oysters. “I think wine is too sharp to pair with oysters,” he says. “Beer is perfect.”
Surprisingly, Jenny doesn’t care for oysters. “It’s the texture,” she says, a bit sheepishly.
Monk’s Cove’s first harvest will be in 2014, as the seeds they planted in 2012 are now reaching market size. Then will come the moment of truth when they will find out whether their dream of a family oyster business can become a viable reality. They have a wholesaler lined up to buy their crop, but are not yet quitting their day jobs.
“It’s a combination of a lot of factors,” Pat says, gesturing at our watery surroundings and listing the things that, for him, make oyster farming worth the risk. “To have this be your office, to work for yourself, to revive the history of oyster farming here. Shellfish farming is a very sustainable way of farming, so you are doing something beneficial for the environment—it’s very rewarding work.”
Whatever may happen in the future, Jenny and Pat Ross are consumed with the now. They have about 600,000 oysters to sort and size. Working together on the boat all day, measuring and re-bagging oysters is a small slice of heaven for this pair. “It’s messy and smelly and we might be out here for hours, but we put some music on and it’s kind of pleasant,” says Jenny. “I never wish to be at my desk.”
Julie Mirocha is an expatriate Cape Codder currently living and eating in the San Francisco Bay Area. She looks forward to returning to her home in Falmouth as a summer resident, and will continue to explore the world of local food, near and far.