Just 40 miles north of San Francisco lays an exquisite body of water in Marin County. The temperate weather and rich ocean water is home to some of the best growing environments for halibut, striped sea bass and bivalves.
In July 1983, with $500 dollars and a passion for oysters, partners John Finger and Michael Watchorn* started Hog Island Oyster Company. Their motto “strong backs and weak minds” was what drove them to plant their first seed. Partner Terry Sawyer Officially signed on in 1998- leaving a secure position with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and jumping at a “too good to refuse: offer from John. Today Johanna Terry remain hands on with the company, overseeing 200 employees in their family and over 160 acres of pristine ocean to cultivate their oysters.
It’s the Fourth of July and I arrive early to Tomales Bay, home to Hog Island Oyster Company. As soon as I step out of the rental car, I immediately think of Mark Twain’s quote: “The coldest winter I saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco”. There is a strong northerly wind blowing that makes it seem like fall rather than mid-summer. As I look out into the bay I am reminded of my childhood when I used to visit the coast of Maine. The colorful homes alongside the coast line are a beautiful contrast to the fog and choppy waters.
The retail store and picnic grounds aren’t open yet, but there is already a buzz in the brisk air. I see tourists and locals alike arriving with anticipation of shucking many oysters. I can already taste the buttery, briny goodness and I haven’t even gotten to the farming grounds. I meet up with Beau and get a quick tour of the grounds. I make my way into the changing area to dawn a pair of waders and a jacket. This image makes me giggle because it makes me look like I know what I am doing. When in fact, I am a land lubber w a fancy camera!
Zane is the farm manager who will be leading this expedition. He is largely laid back. I say “largely” because he is over 6ft and burly. Zane is cool. I like Zane. I just hope he can save me if I fall over board. As he rows out to get the vessel that we will be taking to the farming grounds, I am reminded of Bill Murray in “What about Bob”. Those of you that know this fine film will recall him being strapped to the main sail. Dare I tell Mr. Zane that I too should probably be roped to the main jib less he need to save me in case I fall in? We move on.
I notice a huge bin of left over oyster shells and ask Zane about this. He tells me, “Some, not all, of the spent oyster shells are left out to “cure” in the weather”. They then donate these spent shells to other oyster groups who are doing oyster restorations. He says, “Oysters in the wild “LOVE” to attach to other oyster shells”. Another reason to love this place, utilizing all that nature has to offer in order to come full circle.
The ride out to the farming grounds was bone jarring, with chop that would make even chef Tim Love envy. I try to take some images of Hog Island as we “gently” cruise by but I am met with the seat of the boat. I look back and Zane chuckles. I think he is amused at my art of imbalance. Times like these I wish I had a point and shoot and not a fancy manual everything camera. We eventually make it to the farming grounds, just passed Hog Island. In reality, it is only a 10 minute boat ride out from the main campus, but after that experience, I felt like I just rode the old roller coaster at Belmont Park.
The farming grounds are in very shallow water, depending on the tide. Hog Island Oyster employs various techniques to the growing of their oysters. Their various farming methods include a French method of Rack and Bag and tipping bags. The French method involves using mesh bags (~2×3’) that are attached to re-bar racks which are stuck into the mud. The re-bar racks elevate the bags 2’~ above the bay floor, keeping them above the mud and at the optimal water flow for consuming nutrients in the water column. Approximately 100 oyster seeds are placed in each bag, with eight bags to a rack. Their farm crew rotates the racks, shaking and stirring up the oyster seeds and flipping the racks to keep the oysters from clustering and to help shape their shells into deeper cups.
Tipping bag method is used in areas where space is tight or where they haven’t had success with the rack-and-bag method. Tipping bags are the same sized mesh bags attached to a line of rope. On each bag is a buoy/float and the bags ‘tip’ as the tides rise and fall and this process somewhat tumbles the oyster giving it a deep, round cup.
The maturing process for their Pacific oysters (Hog Island “Sweetwater” which is their most popular) from seedlings to consumer ready or market size, takes about 18 months. These oysters tend to be sweet, as the names lends, with a slightly smokey finish.
Two of their other popular varieties are the Atlantic and Kumamoto. Hog Island is one of only two oyster farms on the West Coast who grows the Atlantic species. These oysters have an oblong shell with a crisp mineralogy to them. The plump, firm and sweet Kumamotos pack big flavor into their tiny shells. Both of these species of oysters take anywhere from 2-3 years to mature! Hence the phrase, “growing good things slowly”.
One of the other aspects I love about Hog Island Oyster Company is that they are extremely dedicated to educating and sustaining their livelihood. They work directly with UC Davis as well as Bodega Bay Marine Lab in studying the effects of climate change and ocean acidification. Both institutions provide extensive ongoing research and education on climate change, conservation and ocean health. Recently, they have partnered with scientist from California, Oregon and Washington to study the effects of climate change and ocean acidification. Dr Tessa Hill from UC Davis is one of the scientists that are working closely with Hog Island Oysters to study the effects of ocean acidification in hopes to help the oysters farmers respond to these changes in a way that it minimizes the detrimental effects on their business and farms.
All this fresh crisp air, along with that calm boat ride and farming, has made me extremely thirsty for some bivalves. As we pull into the harbor I am greeted with the scent of the BBQ that is now in full swing at the Oyster Bar. Stumbling through the low tide and soft ocean bottom, I make my way up the boat ramp to a Norman Rockwell-esque scene. Various families and friends are enjoying their 4th of July like true Americans should. I bask in the sense of accomplishment that I just faired the elements and helped catch the shellfish they are about to enjoy. Life is good as an oyster farmer.
*No longer with the company
*** CHECK OUT the short film created for
Hog Island Oyster Company’s Cocktail Program ***