A Day on the Farm with Island Creek Oysters

It’s a calm morning out on Duxbury Bay. Light breeze, high 70s. Late August sun and a whiff of crisp fall air. The tide is dropping and soon, around 11:30 a.m., some 20 billion gallons of water will have flooded from the six square mile bay, leaving the flats nearly dry, and the perfect time for the guys from Island Creek Oysters to go out to the “lease”and start farming oysters. 

I’m tagging along to take photos and hopefully learn a little bit about how this once small operation grew into an oyster empire. On the way to the boat ramp I’m introduced to Gardner Loring and Mark Bouthillier who are loading up the boat with two other members of the farm crew, a guy they call “Pops” and another named Olaf. The boat they’re loading is a skiff, about 18-feet long with a four-stroke engine and a big winch post in the back. It’s a straight-up workboat with a plenty of space for oysters and it’s absolutely caked in mud. By the end of the day, the only clean part of the boat will be the stretch of chrome railing I’ve held onto while trying not to drop my camera in the bay. 

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Chances are, if you’ve eaten oysters in New York or Boston or at any number of great restaurants in the U.S., you’ve eaten one of Island Creek’s Duxbury-grown oysters. They’re known for their hard shells and for their briny flavor, which is the result of the particular conditions there, a bay with little freshwater input that floods with a lot of cold salty water. 

Oysters won’t grow here naturally and the growing season is quick and labor intensive. Island Creek grows their oysters in the mud, which means they use a special trawling tool that is dragged from a boat to scoop the oysters out, or they dig them out by hand. It’s an easier process than it sounds, the farm crew tells me. But first they transfer the oyster seeds through a series of mesh bags and cages every few weeks before planting them in the mud. This process shakes up the oysters and allows them to grow faster and stronger.

Duxbury Bay isn’t far from where the Pilgrims decided to pitch a tent a few hundred years ago and settle down. And on a day like today it’s easy to see why. The bay is gorgeous; filled with pleasure boats, yachts and, now, a bunch of oyster shacks. A recent Boston Globe story counted them as high as 30, but 20 years ago there was just one and it was owned by Skip Bennett, the founder of Island Creek Oysters. 

Back when Bennett started seeding Duxbury Bay with oysters in the early 90s, he was warned it was a bad idea. His quahog crop had been wiped out a few times and he wanted to try something new. But replacing clams with oysters was something totally new and, well, risky. 

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Now some twenty years later, with a booming oyster farm, two restaurants in Boston, an e-commerce business and a foundation committed to creating sustainable aquaculture projects around the world, Skip Bennet’s idea doesn’t seem so bad after all. Island Creek Oysters has become an empire with high profile clients like the White House, French Laundry and Per Se, which they do a custom cull for to provide a particular medium-sized circular oyster that the chef Thomas Keller requests.

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On the day I visit we head out to the “float” so the guys can sort some oysters by size and get them back in the shallow water of their lease, a three-acre parcel just outside the harbor. But we’re also going to something very new, a 10-acre lease site in nearby Plymouth that Island Creek has just got the go-ahead to start farming only the week before after a multi-year application process.

It only takes a few minutes by boat to get to the new lease, but by car it’s a forty-minute drive or so around the bay. This site is different than the one Island Creek has been farming for the last 22 years. First, it’s more than twice the size. Second it’s on a beach right near a modest cottage Bennett owns that will totally drain at low tide leaving the oysters, in their cages, completely exposed. Because it’s so new  the farm crew hasn’t totally figured out exactly they’ll farm it but they suspect that it will yield more of the oysters that Keller loves for Per Se, perfect little medium-sized gems you can eat all day and all night. 

And the oysters that are out there are beautiful. Bouthillier sifts through some of them, pointing out individual characteristics that only an oyster farmer would notice. Looking at an oyster shell is a little like examining tree rings, you can tell seasons and years by various growth patterns. The guys finish placing the oyster bags in the cages at the new lease site, dust off a bag of barbecue potato chips and start wading their boats back into the channel. 

The day is pretty much done but before we head in, Loring wants to check a few of his lobster pots. He’s got a recreational permit and checks them when he can. This year, by all accounts, has been bad. We pull up a couple pots and they’re empty. Each time Loring picks the pots while Bouthillier expertly maneuvers the boat right into position, quickly gunning the throttle in reverse at the last minute to land Loring, who’s leaning over the gunwale, right at the pot. 

By the third pot we find a couple and then on the fourth we see a big lobster. 

“Breeding female,” Bouthillier says, as they pull it out of the cage, its claws snapping away at the air. The inside of the lobster’s tail is totally caked in tiny black row. They’ll throw it back, but first, Loring carefully cuts a notch in the lobster’s tail with a knife, a sign for the next people that will pull her up -  in case her tail isn’t caked in eggs - that she’s a breeding female and then he tosses her back. 

We head back into the harbor and the guys park the boat right next to the Island Creek Office and they show me the seeds for next year’s crop that are growing on the dock. They are months old and still minuscule, the size of tiny pebbles. The farm crew will take them out to the float next year, then to one of the leases, then back to the float to be sorted and eventually then they’ll dig them up, bag them and send them away. The oysters will end up at Per Se and the White House and the Newport Folk Festival, and, perhaps, on your plate too.