Moon Shoal Farm
Raising Oysters on Two Acres in Barnstable Harbor
Growing up in Yarmouth, Jon Martin spent his childhood fiercely admiring the men who made their living from the sea. Today as an adult in Barnstable Village, he and his wife Kate have joined their ranks as the proprietors of fledgling Moon Shoal Oysters, an aquaculture farm in Barnstable Harbor.
A typical day on their town-appointed oyster grant starts when the tide allows access to their two acres northwest of Scudder Lane on the far side of the harbor. They set off from their house on foot pushing their gear in a large wheelbarrow, which includes anything from lunch to the gas tank for the boat, high waders and assorted oyster gear. They walk down the narrow sandy lane past beach plums and rosa rugosa, to the beach where their boat is moored just off shore. At high tide, they can access the boat with the bright yellow kayak kept handily onshore. Once they and their gear are onboard and the wheelbarrow is above the tide line, they are off on what Jon calls “a great commute”.
Until 15 years ago the sand flats of Barnstable Harbor were empty spaces. After the Army Corps of Engineers approved the flats for aquaculture, declaring that it would not have adverse affect on other species, the space was opened up for farming. Today 100 acres are being successfully utilized as farmland in the form of about 52 grants producing oysters, steamers, little necks and quahogs. Shellfish aquaculture on formerly empty flats is an excellent example of how open space can be successfully connected to farming. It neatly echoes land farming: the tractor is replaced with a boat. This form of noninvasive husbandry actually improves the local environment. As filter feeders, oysters clean 30 to 50 gallons of water apiece daily. Imagine that cleaning power multiplied by the thousands of oysters on the grants. In addition to helping clean the water, the grants create local jobs while producing a commodity that is always in demand. All this happens on formerly vacant sandbars, open spaces abundant on Cape Cod that can either be cultivated or simply left to their own devices as undevelopable parts of the ocean.
I joined Jon on his boat, a 21-foot Carolina Skiff with a 3-6 inch draw, on a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon late last May. As he expertly piloted his craft through narrow creeks against an outgoing tide, he outlined the navigational hazards of constantly moving tidal sands and explained how as a novice he kept running into the same sand bar. Finally he consulted his navigation chart and found that it was called Moon Shoal. He was so delighted with the name that he christened his farm Moon Shoal Oysters. Now he passes it casually as the creek narrows and the advantage of the Carolina Skiff ’s shallow draw becomes apparent. As the tide drops and the creek widens, we suddenly see the grants, each covered in different growing apparatus appropriate to its specific location.
Moon Shoal oysters are grown on a two-acre grant 125 feet wide by 700 feet long. Jon received the grant from the Town of Barnstable in 2008; all shellfish grants are leased from the town and there is a waiting list for them as there is for boat slips. However, unlike boat slips, grants are transferable. They can be sold, given or inherited. Jon attributes his grant to being at the right place at the right time. As early as the end of 2007 he was out on the grants as much as possible. From the minute Jon’s friend Scotty Mullin said he was an oyster farmer, Jon was intrigued. One day when he saw Scotty launching his boat from the harbor, he was invited out. Within 10 minutes he had run home, grabbed his high waders and was onboard. He never looked back and continued going out as much as possible to help Scotty, whom he credits as his mentor. His constant presence on the flats led to his obtaining the grant that became Moon Shoal Oysters from a family moving to Maine.
Moon Shoal Farm is situated where Slough Point and Scorton Creek Spring meet. Although the grants are side by side, one after another, each is unique and is farmed accordingly. As the boat noses its way forward, Jon explains how the fresh water from Scorton Creek, combined with the area’s 10-foot tides, give his oysters their distinctive flavor. The drastic tide provides two big flushes daily while introducing nutrient-rich phytoplankton feeds. Oysters are akin to wine in that they definitely have their own terroir. Farming method combines with geography to influence shape and taste. A Barnstable oyster differs in flavor from a Cotuit, which differs from a Wellfleet.
Once the boat is safely anchored in deeper water and we are in shallow water on the flats, we behold thousands of oysters. Cracking a few open, we taste brine. After the brine comes a marvelous melon taste. This melon finish is a wonderful surprise and it defines the unique taste of Moon Shoal Oysters.
It takes 18 to 24 months to get oysters from seed to market. The seed comes from Maine’s Damariscotta region and they and everything else on the grant have to be hauled out by boat. Coming and going by water is a great part of the charm of oyster farming and Jon and Kate enjoy the ride in all seasons. From the start the growth schedule is staggered so that there are oysters ready for market while new seed is growing. The new seed is contained in PCV pipes, each made into a stanchion that is pushed into the mud. This supports a 6-inch round pipe wrapped in window screen that contains the seed. Currently there are ten tubes holding about 150,000 tiny oysters. As the oysters gain size, they are moved into mesh bags. Jon explained oyster growth: the flat side of the shell pushes itself out in a feathered edge. This creates rings that you can count the same way you can count tree rings. As they grow even bigger, they are put into trays as close to the bottom as possible. They are unable to sit directly on the bottom due to the constantly shifting sands. This method of oyster cultivation is called “rack and bag” and originated in France as a growth technique for intertidal areas. The neat rows of trays contain 200,000 oysters ready for market, having reached their required 3-inch size. Oysters for the half shell market need to have a deep cup, a round shape and a clean appearance. In the summer Jon can sell 8,000 to 10,000 oysters a month.
Consumer demand for oysters grows throughout the year, peaking at New Year’s, and then falling. This works well with the rhythm of oyster farming, as once the saleable oysters have gone to market, the seed maturing for next year must be brought in for cold storage in coolers by January 1st to avoid freezing. That gives Jon some down time to spend building and fixing gear. In February and March he starts to bring things back out to the grant to prepare for April. He is always checking the seed as it winters in the cooler. By April 15th all over-wintered seeds are returned to the grant with the gear. These seeds will grow for the current year’s market. By May 15th the new seed for next year arrives and goes out as well. As the mature oysters are harvested, the new seed comes in to be sorted by size and returned to the grant. It comes in again in mid-August to be tumbled in a process that promotes growth, after which it is separated by size again. As the year winds down they are brought in to overwinter, returning to the flats on April 15th to start the process again.
As we head back to Barnstable Harbor with four boxes containing 1,600 oysters we have just harvested for market, we share a lunch of cheese and homemade bread baked by Kate. Jon explains how they see this as a family business, a way they can work together. Once their kids are in school full time, Kate plans to join Jon on the oyster farm. As it is, she and the kids go out as much as possible. Their motto for the farm is “gentle persistence”. Jon does as little to the oysters as possible, allowing nature to take its course. He needs only to guide nature to produce a great crop in a good year. Both Jon and Kate feel connected to their Cape roots when they are on their grant and they consider it an all-around good thing. Open space is being successfully utilized to produce livelihoods and delicious shellfish. Suddenly we are surrounded by jumping stripers churning up water in the afternoon sun. Sadly we can’t linger as Jon’s neighbor is waiting with his truck on the boat ramp to collect the oysters and we don’t want them to get too warm. We roar across the harbor at an exhilarating speed and come in right next to Mattakeese Wharf. Jon greets his friend and passes the boxes up to him. I am struck by the completely local nature of this arrangement and excited for all the people who are soon to enjoy the harvest.
Mary Blair Petiet, a Cape Cod native, lives with her family in Barnstable. She writes in support of local sustainability and is also a regular contributor to Edible South Shore.