Oysters farmers dig into dirty work of cleaning

Posted: Tuesday, September 17, 2002

Editor's note: Kachemak Bay water taxi operators are often asked about the purpose of dozens of buoys clustered in the coves lining the south side of the bay. The answer is simple: oyster farms.

This is the third segment of a four-part series that will elaborate on that answer while providing an in-depth look at the mariculture trade, Homer's hidden seafood industry.

Six orderly rows of buoys striping Peterson Bay are all that's visible of the Moss Island Oyster Farm. Like an iceberg, the lion's share of the farm is beneath the surface.

Along each row, 64 oyster-filled nets hang suspended in the nutrient-rich waters of the bay.

"This water has so much food in it," said Ron Bader, who owns the farm with his wife, Marie. "On some days, it looks like pea soup. But it's not nutrient that is created here, it's trapped here by the Japanese current."

While the seemingly limitless food source is what drives the successful oyster farm, it also is the cause of much of the farmers' labor. The Baders' equipment, including the 384 lantern nets and 1,700 feet of submerged line, requires constant cleaning to keep it free of the persistent marine growth.

Among the worst culprits are the mussels that set on the gear and grow by the thousands.

"The mussel sets come each July, and they can crowd out the oysters," Ron said. "It looks like everything has been spray painted black when there's been a mussel set."

There's a bright spot, though. Mussels are worth their weight in gold at market, bringing a price almost equal to that of the oysters themselves. It's like a crop farmer's weeds commanding the same price as his corn.

"Mussels get about $2.30 a pound," said Robert Hartley, who owns neighboring Peterson Bay Oyster Farm. "Compare that to the price for red salmon."

Speaking on his boat recently while employee Jeff Lockhart put a high pressure hose to a mussel-choked lantern net they'd just hoisted from the water, Hartley said cleaning gear consumes about half an oyster farmer's time.

It's a lesson hard-learned for some. Kevin and Lucinda Side-linger, who along with Hartley and the Baders are members of the Kachemak Shellfish Growers Cooperative, almost lost their 10-acre farm when it sank from the weight of the growth on their nets.

"If you slough off on the cleaning, a lot of times you won't have a farm," Hartley said.

Lines, buoys and nets are cleaned with brushes and the high-pressure pumps that blow the debris into the water.

"You have to work with the (current) or it just drifts into the row of nets you just cleaned and gets them all dirty again," said Marie. "We learned that the hard way."

In fact, much of what they know about oyster farming they learned the hard way, she said.

"The learning curve the first two years was steep," she said. "There was nobody here to tell us how to do this."

One of the first lessons concerned the size of their stock. Along with Hartley and neighbors Gary and Debbie Siems, the Baders began farming in 1993. That year they ordered 200,000 juvenile oysters from a hatchery.

"That was too much," Ron said. "We had a lot of dead loss. We couldn't harvest them, and there was overcrowding."

When the state first began permitting oyster farms in Kachemak Bay, it required a harvest of 50,000. The state has changed its regulations, and now requires farms to produce $3,000 per acre to be considered a viable entity, Ron said. But the Baders have determined that 50,000 oysters is about right for the size of their operation.

Last year we did 70,000, but that was too much for us," Marie said. "That's not to say it would be too much for two different people."

For the Baders, farming is as much about lifestyle as it is an occupation. They take advantage of the flexible hours the husbandry allows them every opportunity they get, said Marie.

"Oyster farming is a year-round job, but we only harvest from March to about September," she said. "And we don't really get up early. We like to sort of ease into the day, drinking a cup of coffee and just enjoying this place."

They bought the farm in 1987. It was a subdivided piece of land originally homesteaded by a man named Joel Moss, who the Baders befriended. They named their farm for Moss, though when they bought the site there was nothing more than the acreage and an old boat-building barn. Since then, they've refurbished the barn and turned it into a comfortable summer home overlooking their farm.

Ron grew up on a row crop farm in Michigan, and Marie comes from a dairy farming background.

"The commitment of farm life was not foreign to us," she said, "so when the state opened up this area to mariculture, we decided to do it. The oyster farms here, with the water being so rich, are like the rich soil of northern California vineyards."

Other than the Pacific Northwest, Prince Edward Island, Canada, is the only other place in North America that farms oysters using suspension nets rather than beach nets, Marie said.

Beach-raised oysters open and close with the tide cycle, which strengthens their muscles and firms the meat. Suspension-cultured oysters are sometimes left on racks on the beach for several tide cycles following the harvest for the same reason, a process called "hardening."

"In the nets they stay open because there's no reason to close," Ron said. "They're underwater, and the food just keeps coming. But hardening is time-consuming, and we're trying to keep up with demand, so we don't always go through that process.

"There are times I could do without the hard work, but farm management is fun," he said. "I love farm management."

The Baders keep a ledger detailing how many oysters they order each year, and from where, and how many they harvest. To help keep things straight on the farm, they've developed a color-coding system that allows them to distinguish first-, second- and third-year oysters as well as the origin of the stock.

Oysters are ordered from a variety of hatcheries "to keep diversity just in case something happens to one group," Marie said. Last year the Baders ordered 62,000 oysters, hoping to meet their harvest goal two years from now.

If half the farmers' time is spent cleaning, the other half is devoted to the harvest. But even harvesting requires a heavy measure of cleaning to prepare the oysters for market.

Working on a table on their custom-built 22-foot farm boat, the Baders empty a lantern net of 3-year-old oysters to be sorted. Each oyster is weighed. Those over 2 ounces are put into one bucket, those that just meet the 2-ounce minimum into another, and undersized ones, called "growbacks," go into a third bucket and will eventually be put back into a net and returned to the farm.

The Baders then attack each oyster with scrub brushes and scrapers, not unlike cleaning the hull of a boat. The growth and mussels that cling to each shell don't affect the taste but will affect the market value.

"By the time they get to a restaurant or a market, the mussels on the shells will have died, and they'll start to stink," Marie said. "Nobody wants to serve them when they stink. We're saving a cook, or someone, a lot of work."

"I hate this part of oyster farming," said Ron, scraping shells and tossing them into buckets as if on autopilot.

"It's grunt work, like working your way through a bushel basket of green beans," Marie agreed. "Last year 4.7 tons of oysters cost us 1,100 hours of labor."

Sorting through the harvest, the gloved and wadered Baders shuck and eat an occasional oyster they find with a cracked shell, a perk of the business they both seem to relish.

Each Tuesday, the oysters are shipped to market 25 dozen to a cooler, with gel packs to maintain the temperature. Though they'll last for up to three weeks, the sooner they're eaten, the better they'll taste.

"Even shelled oysters in a jar are supposedly still alive. It's hard to imagine that, though," Ron said, popping one into his mouth.

As August came to an end, the Baders completed their harvest for the year. They still have lines to clean, but their work days are growing shorter.

"Our goal when we leave each year is to have our lines growth-free," Marie said. "It's just good farming -- and common sense."

"Last year we produced more food than we ate," Ron said, proudly. "We figured out how much food we eat, poundage-wise, and how much we produced, and it felt good that we were contributing something. It's nice to be able to do that."

Chris Bernard is a reporter for the Homer News.

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