Bringing the Brine: Meet Two Sisters Growing Sustainable Oyster Farming Businesses While Helping to Improve NH’s Most Famous Estuary’s Water Quality and Longevity
For New Hampshire Women Magazine
The daily low tides at the Great Bay Estuary reveal a beautiful underwater landscape painted with tufts of waving seaweed and almost perfectly-placed halved shells scattered across the sandy bottom. The calmness of this time hushes the bouncing buoys marking the homes of what may be one of the greatest natural water filters on earth – the Eastern oyster.
To the average observer, low tide seems like a time of testing patience. Many boats sit sulking on the mud and tied to their tidal docks, while kids wait for the rising waters to make way for cannon balls and dives off floating platforms. Yet, for oyster farmers (and sisters!), Laura Brown of Fox Point Oysters LLC of Durham and Krystin Ward of Choice Point Oysters LLC of Portsmouth, low tide starts a ticking clock – a three-hour window to tend to their beloved crops.
A Typical Day
Wearing waders in waist-deep waters at the mouth of Great Bay (known as Little Bay), the women gently walk their kayaks over to the mud flats that house bags, cages, and even loose oysters they have seeded on the bay’s floor. With a sum of three farms between them (one for Brown and two for Ward), precious time is strategically calculated and spent cleaning the equipment and raking the oysters seeded below.
“I typically get up with the sun. It all depends on the tide,” says Brown. “Some days are spent gently shaking the oysters in the bags to clean them and keep them from growing together [because] they are sold as individual oysters, not clusters. Some days, I go through trays of oysters and break them apart, clean them of mud and source harvest-ready sizes.”
Oyster farming in many ways is about nurturing the animal. And, maybe that’s one reason why women are shining in the industry? One of many factors in this nurturing process is that providing such desirable conditions yields plumper meat and attractive shells. With the growing interest in oysters, and over a 604 percent increase in NH’s oyster harvesting between 2013 and 2019*, consumers are building preferences for taste, texture, and crave the freshness buying local brings. “I think that oysters in general have reached an all-time high,” says Ward. “I think that many people are realizing that many farms, on land or in the water, are owned by women and hopefully this has helped in their career choice.”
Ward, a farmer-scientist who works heavily in oyster restoration as well, sells oysters called Little Bay Littles and larger Salty Girlz. When asked about their special characteristics she says, “Our oysters have a firm texture and are very briny, they pack a punch. At certain times in the season they are described as having a creamy finish. They have a nice, thick cupped shell.”
Brown, who has a masters in fine arts and left the world of art education, sculpture, and glassblowing to return to New Hampshire and start a farm with her sister’s advice and guidance, describes her oysters as a wine connoisseur describes her favorite bottle. “My oysters have a khaki, teardrop shell with a deep cup, offering a briny kick, a hint of sweet and a clean finish,” she says. “They are grown where the mouth of the Bellamy River meets Little Bay.”
Brown explains that a great influx of tidal waters from the Atlantic Ocean, coupled with fresh waters from five major rivers whirl around the bay creating food sources for oysters. She continues, “This unique blend of nutrients in the water creates the flavor of the oysters and each farm can have a distinct taste depending on the location and how they are farmed.”
Navigating the COVID Crisis
With the upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not only businesses on land that have had to change their business models to cope with this new way of living, Brown and Ward have also had to think quickly and creatively to keep their businesses afloat.
“My business was primarily wholesale, some retail, and I added some events,” says Brown. “When COVID hit, restaurants (wholesale), largely disappeared. Events were also cancelled. I had to completely change my business model to sell directly to retail clients. Customers ordered online and picked up at a parking lot near my farm. So, a drop off of hundreds of oysters to one wholesaler each week became a dozen at a time to each customer.”
Brown says she also teamed up with other local groups to deliver to customers. “Retail saved me,” she says. “It took 100 percent more effort and a lot of customer service to make it happen, but I kept the business afloat and can keep going another year.”
Ward focused more on oyster restoration on Great Bay with organizations like the UNH Jackson Estuarine Laboratory when the pandemic hit. “During COVID, my focus has been more on oyster restoration on the bay, working with agencies in NH and providing them with oysters that will help repopulate the natural oyster reefs. During COVID, many of the restaurants were closed down or running a minimum capacity, so it was a challenge figuring out which direction my farm should go in.” She continues, “I think my work at the UNH Jackson Estuarine Laboratory and how COVID has affected the state has been an influence with how I run my farm these days.”
Healing Great Bay
Decades before Brown and Ward started their oyster farms, Great Bay was feeling the effects of disease and overharvesting. With the substantial decrease in natural oyster reefs, the bay suffered significantly.
Oysters are critical to the bay’s ecosystem. And, a major benefit of running oyster farms for these sisters, is the obvious environmental benefit they have on positively affecting Great Bay.
A single oyster can filter 30 to 40 gallons of water a day. “Oyster’s are nature’s pumps,” says Brown. “They filter water where they get their nutrients and help keep water clear.”
A typical growth period of an oyster is two and a half to three years to prepare an oyster for harvest. “The oysters I put in each year will produce baby oysters naturally after one year, I believe,” says Brown. “I harvest two and a half to three year old oysters, so each year my hundreds of thousands of oysters are producing millions of baby oysters that hopefully find their way to natural reefs, rocks, etcetera, where they grow up [and] pump and filter water and thrive.”
“‘Bottom seeding’ oysters is another method that we use on the farms,” says Ward. “As the oyster seed gets to be about an inch and a half long, they are mostly safe from crab predation, so that’s when we spread the [oyster] seed on the bottom to grow until reaching market size. As we do this over the years, the oysters that we don’t harvest, continue to grow on the bottom and become too big. Another farmer and I thought of a way to use these large oysters to help repopulate natural reefs in Great Bay that are in the restoration phase.”
Ward continues, “Most of the farmers in Little Bay are now working with Alix Laferriere with the NH Nature Conservancy and Ray Grizzle UNH’s Jackson Estuarine Laboratory to transport these large oysters and smaller seed oysters to a reef that has had declining numbers of oysters over the years. The low number of oysters equals low number spawning. These farmed oysters are placed on a clam shell base at these restoration areas where they will be able to repopulate the area.” Brown, Ward and most farmers in Little Bay also work with the NH Sea Grant using large, unmarketable oysters to create a reef located on the farm site. “This reef will mimic what we’re trying to achieve on the restoration sites and will be monitored yearly.”
The Great Connection
Both sisters agree there’s a deep connection with nature while serving the farms. “Yes, definitely, a huge connection with nature. It’s beautiful out on the farm, working tides, listening to the birds, watching the sun rise and set. Working in a way that actually benefits the environment is very fulfilling.”
“The farm is a happy place – grounding, calming, and restorative,” says Brown. It can also be exhausting, redundant, and physically hard on the body. Each day, however, I feel restored. I found myself rising with the sun and sleeping with nightfall over the years. And, in winter, when the oysters rest, so do I. I sleep longer and longer until spring comes and my energy is renewed. The water is invigorating and when I take time off the farm, I find myself eager to get back in the water. It does something for the soul.”
To learn more about restoration efforts in Great Bay, visit https://seagrant.unh.edu/, https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/new-hampshire/oyster-restoration-in-the-great-bay-estuary/, https://marine.unh.edu/facility/jackson-estuarine-laboratory