Being in It Together
Scrambling down the hill was difficult enough with the steep incline, but add brambles and underbrush, plus pouring rain, and it was nearly impossible. This was years ago, and Van and I were navigating our way down to yet another potential oyster farm spot.
For this scouting trip I had been convinced to skip a Super Bowl party and trek out to Hood Canal from where we were living aboard a 31’ boat in Ballard. Van had seen a new lot come on for sale – smaller, undeveloped waterfront lots were what was in our budget, and when they came available, we then made ourselves available to check them out.
That wasn’t even the lot that eventually became our oyster farm but does illustrate what many of our weekends were like while finding our spot. For the day I’m recalling here, I needed Van’s encouragement to keep at the project. At other times in our oyster journey that role has flipped, and I’m positive that being in it together is what has seen us through.
In finding the right tidelands, our focus was first on finding a place suitable for growing oysters, with excellent water quality allowing for year-round harvest, then had good access, and finally that we could afford. It took us two years to finally find the spot.
An Oyster Attraction
Our drive to keep checking out lots and doing research weekend after weekend came from why we were attracted to oyster farming in the first place, and in the end that have played out to be true:
- First off, it’s a process that we can see from start to finish, at about a year and a half to three (depending on oyster growth) for our location. It’s hands on in a very satisfying way and gives great reward – delicious oysters.
- We were attracted the sustainability of oyster cultivation. Oyster farming is essentially this beautifully efficient way of turning sunlight into protein, as sunlight causes phytoplankton blooms, and oysters eat the phytoplankton. It’s a process that requires no addition of feed or anything else to the water.
- Worldwide oyster populations are at historic lows. So, the oyster “job” as part of the ecosystem is greatly diminished – oysters are filter feeders, which essentially keep nutrients in balance. Farming oysters brings this ecosystem service back while not reducing wild populations.
- Oyster farming is outside, on the water, and requires that we are tuned into natural processes. Intuitively, this appealed to us, and interestingly there’s also been a lot of research about the positive effect being outdoors has on human well-being.
- Lastly, with the U.S. importing more than 80% of the seafood it eats (!), we were interested in producing local, sustainable, high quality seafood right here in Washington.
There’s also something to be said for the oyster farm allowing us to work together, and being a lifestyle we desired for once we had a family.
When Van and I were first married we were officers aboard NOAA scientific research vessels. While on those ships we got to do incredible things, like tracking whales, visiting new ports, and watching the sun rise and set out on the ocean. Being on different ships, however, made for a very long-distance relationship. We only saw one another a few months out of the year, and that wasn’t right for us. We wanted to build something together.
The Right Spot, and Learning How to Farm
We did finally find the right tidelands and knew it right away. At the beginning of the Toandos peninsula on the Hood Canal it checked all the boxes, and has a wild beauty that still amazes every time. From there, there was still much work to be done.
To learn how to oyster farm, we toured other farms, talked with farmers, and attended shellfish conferences and meetings. From this, we gained an understanding of how the industry works and what farming method would suit our farm.
During this, I had fallen so in love with oysters that I had taken a job with the Puget Sound Restoration Fund (PSRF). PSRF works to restore native marine species in the Puget Sound (primarily the Olympia oyster), and I was getting an excellent, on-the-job education in oyster biology.
Start to finish, from getting serious about the idea of oyster farming to actually putting in our first batch of oyster seed, it took about 5 years.
Working with the Tide Schedule
In starting and running the farm there’s been more missed celebrations following that first skipped Superbowl party. When the tide schedule is run by the moon, and the farm is only accessible at low tide, that’s how it has to be. Our friends and family understand, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to make those compromises.
But, to reach our goal, compromise we did. The farm was such a priority to us that we went so far as buying the tidelands over our first home.
To that end, to help fund the farm Van also drove Uber in the afterhours from his then full-time job. I did too, for a very short while, as back then if an existing driver (Van) brought on a new driver (me) there was a cash incentive for both drivers. I stopped, though, after a passenger blacked out in the back of my car and was confused why I had driven him to Bellevue from downtown Seattle. Even in the name of the farm, I figured that was pushing my luck enough.
The Best Reward
Seeing our oysters hit the market and be well received has been incredibly rewarding. It’s a true honor to see Fjordlux at restaurants and in homes, and to know they are a part of many a memorable dining experience.
But perhaps the best reward has been the privilege of a lifestyle intertwined with nature. Watching Wayne, our son, grow up on the beach means the world to me. In some ways, he now knows the beach better than I, having a much keener eye for things like rock patterns, water flow changes, and which logs are best to play pretend restaurant at.
Pull Anchor and Set Sail
Starting and running the farm has taken a level of dedication I would have dreaded alone. With Van, though, it’s been a challenging yet fulfilling expedition. Perhaps the route hasn’t been as direct as it could have been, but that’s all a part of navigating a new project. We didn’t know exactly how it would turn out, yet we plotted our course to the next waypoint, made it happen, and then figured out together what the following step was from there.
Thank you for reading – and if you’ve got a destination you know is right for you, then by all means pull anchor and set sail. If you can identify that first waypoint and you’ve done your research, have confidence that you’ll figure out the path along the way.