Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Nature vs the Oyster Farmer

Bob and I were starting to feel somewhat comfortable in our roles as oyster farmers when nature tossed in something new and completely unexpected. This came in the form of one of the strangest "blooms" in the waters of Blind Bay that we had ever seen. The ocean water in fall and winter months is beautifully clear, so crystal clear you can peer down some 50 feet through bottle green water to life on the bottom of the bay. Once spring starts to warm up the air and the water the seasonal "blooms" begin and water clarity changes dramatically.

We had just completed a shipment to our Asian buyer and were working on getting 50,000 seed oysters into trays when we noticed the water starting to streak here and there with a pinky-brown colour. At first we were really concerned thinking it was the dreaded "red tide". I had never seen a red tide warning accompanied by reddish goo in the water but this explanation seemed to be reasonable. As the day wore on the bloom increased and eventually we could see it was spreading all over the bay. We finished up work on the growing rafts and headed for shore and the cabin. Once we got close to the shore I could not believe what we saw. The entire shorline was outlined with what was now bright orangey-pink ooze. Talk about good timing. If this guck had turned up a day earlier we would have had to cancel the entire shipment of outgoing oysters.

Later that evening we were having a Nelson Island neighbour and former oyster farmer in for dinner. We asked him if he had ever seen anything like this before and what he thought it might be. He assured us it was not red tide as he had checked in with the local fisheries office earlier. His best guess he said, and he dearly hoped he was wrong, was that this strange coloured stuff everywhere in the water was a once in a blue moon starfish spawn. I imagined the thousands of starfish littered all over the shores of Malaspina Staight, Jervis Inlet and Blind Bay all spewing out millions of starfish eggs or whatever they do to get life started. This was a horrific thought as starfish are the natural and worst enemy of our Pacific oysters. They pry their way into the oyster shell inserting their stomach as I understand it and consume the delicious oyster meat inside the shell. Oysters are the favourite food of starfish and you can find lots of starfish stuck on and under rocks on any good oyster beach, all waiting to creep slowly onto the poor unsuspecting oysters and devour them.

Bob and I did not give the starfish spawn idea much thought as the coloured water vanished in about a week and we continued with the ongoing work of growing oysters. On our last trip up to the island two weeks ago we were pulling stacks of oysters out of the water that we had not had a look at since last May and June. We nearly fell over as the ten-tray stacks were winched out of the water they looked like Christmas trees! Tiny prickly sea urchins were clinging to the trays which is a good thing as they gobble up other problem sealife, however, along with the sea urchins were hundreds of little coloured starfish. Small purple, orange, dark brown and green starfish were stuck on the outside and inside of all the trays full of oysters. The starfish spawn theory now seemed like a pretty good one and not a welcome event at all. We were working to size-sort and bag up oysters for another shipment later the next month and we now had to spend extra hours pulling the nasty critters off our oysters and dumping them into a trash bucket. As we collected bucket after bucket we then had the problem of what to do with them all. Bob who is also known as "Tomato Bob", is a passionate gardener and he decided we would deposit the buckets of starfish in a selected spot in a meadow on the family property and use them to start a really nutrient rich compost. I was not all that keen on this plan unless we buried them with dirt right away. We had declared war on the starfish last summer and pulled a couple of hundred off the rocks around our beach and dumped them in the meadow. As the decaying process went on during the weeks after our starfish raid the pile of dead gooey starfish turned into a bad scene from Lord of the Flies. What looked like millions of big black flies were constantly buzzing in a cloud over the rotting pile and the smell was enough to send you running from 100 feet away. This time we ended up throwing a little dirt on our new cache of dead starfish and I am sure we will have "super dirt" by the time we decide to plant a few tomatoes.

We have discovered there are other man against nature battles that an oyster farmer must wage. Certainly not something we factored in to our hobby of growing oysters. Turns out mussels also spawn and float around in the big ocean looking for something like an oyster growing tray and oysters to cling to while they grow. We have spent days scraping baby mussles off our oysters as buyers are not keen on receiving product with clumps of tiny black mussles. We have a friend that once kindly offered to come and help us out on the oyster growing rafts. We were working through several stacks of mussel lined oyster trays and we asked if he might consider helping with this. Thinking we were making a big deal out of nothing he came along to spend a couple of days with us. Firstly he nearly froze to death in the unseasonable late September cold wind and drenching rain that were almost constant during the two days he spent with us, and he was truly amazed to discover just how many mussels we were dealing with. Endless hours of boring scraping . No surprise he has not booked his next trip back to the oyster farm. Actually I think it was the resident cabin bat swooping about his head when he was trying to get to sleep that evening that really finished him off.

Red tide is another menace and has brought a complete halt to our sales program, usually for six weeks every spring or summer. You don't mess with red tide as it is more scientifically known as paralytic shellfish poisoning, and more than a few sorry shellfish diners have kicked the bucket from ingesting a red tide oyster. Just this last June we had a huge number of large oysters ready to go for the barbeque market in the United States. We were defeated by a red tide and had to cancel our entire shipment. Needless to say there went weeks of work down the drain. As summer progressed the oysters started to spawn and in the process naturally became milky, soft and generally not such a desirable mouthful. By the time we had the all-clear for selling oysters again we were forced to wait until October for colder water and tasty, firm-fleshed oysters.

Who knew oyster farming could be so tricky!?! Nature really does throw you some nasty curves and somehow you manage to work around them. Not much choice really. We now have a lot of respect for oyster farmers and all they have to deal with. Much more than I have just described. Surely the day is coming for more reward for the incredibly hardy and deserving oyster farmer. I for one hope it is sooner than later.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Selling My Lovely Oysters

Believe it or not there is world-wide demand for the plump and tasty oysters that are grown here on the West Coast of Canada. When we first purchased the oyster farm I decided I would like to take on the task of contacting and dealing with the buyers of our oysters. I consider myself a pretty good salesperson ,and if there is food product involved even better as I would rate myself up with the best of BC's "foodies". The trick is to try and find a buyer that will pay some decent money for them and one that you sort-of like.
I should mention we would dearly love to be able to sell our oysters directly to restaurants and retail shops but as we do not have our own government approved processing plant to "process" the oysters we can not do this. A processing plant requires all sorts of building requirements including floor surfaces, wall surfaces, a certain type and number of bright glaring lights all properly covered with mesh wire, several large sinks with running "govt approved" water, separate sink areas for washing down dirty employees, miles of stainless steel drains and of course proper disposal of the icky stuff . It seems the Department of Fisheries and Foolishness can not separate fish and fish gut processing from handling ,sorting and packing up oysters. All of this nonsense costs a heap of dough to get together and somehow we have resisted the temptation to apply to create our very own processing plant.
Back to selling oysters.
When we first purchased the oyster farm our oysters were mainly sold to our Asian buyer. Rick, the former owner, seemed to do well with this buyer and as he is not exactly a warm and fuzzy kind of guy I can see why. The young woman who now heads up this company was trained well by her dragon-lady mommy. On a good day she is tough , all about business and abrupt. When contacting her to see if she has any need for your oysters there is no first discussing "how you are doing or feeling", or the usual comments on the nasty Vancouver weather. Instead, when I call she always sounds as if I am a thorn in her side and somewhat irritating to talk to before asking me what she can do for me. Once we get on to the oyster discussion things warm up a bit. I am sure I drive her a little crazy as the foodie in me makes me SELL my tasty oysters. The little ones so perfect for slurping icy cold and raw, and the larger ones making for a mouth-watering Asian seafood stew . What this buyer really wants to hear about is just size and numbers and when you can deliver.
She really surprised me one day when I received a call from her asking my opinion about her buying and operating her own oyster farm. I wondered why she would ask me of all growers but then thought she must have figured if an old city-chick like me could manage to grow thousands of oysters it was something she should look at. I decided there was no point in painting a rosy picture of oyster farming and told her the grim truth. I gather she came to her senses and never went ahead with the plan. All in all dealing with the Asian gal is ok. Just takes some getting used to which is made bearable by the fact that she pays more than most other buyers.
Once we had a few sales under our belts I decided we should seek out other buyers. I started my search by contacting a fellow in our neighbourhood that owns a wonderful seafood shop and restaurant. He was of particular interest to me as I also knew he co-owned a couple of oyster farms on Quadra Island a few miles north of our property. One early fall afternoon Bob and I sat down with him and a bottle of his favourite red wine. It took him a while to believe we were serious about continuing on with our crazy venture but he did finally come through with some good buyer information. He recommended I call a fellow called Alan at another shellfish company located in Richmond. According to our restaurant friend this company sold most of their oysters to buyers in the United States. At that time we had a huge supply of really perfect looking extra small oysters and I thought they would be of interest as the American Thanksgiving holiday was not far away. I called the shellfish company and ended up speaking with Alan. Well, what a treat compared to dealing with the Asian gal. Alan wanted to know all about our where exactly our oyster farm was located and all about me. It turned out Alan had been involved in growing oysters and clams on the BC coast for years and even owned some recreational island property of his own. I arranged to drive out to meet Alan and took a small lunch cooler with some of our oysters for him to look over.
I liked Alan the moment I met him. We talked about everything to do with oysters and lots about our past histories. Alan is a fellow with many interests , a great sense of humour and a natural gift for story telling. In the end Alan was very impressed with the small slurper oysters and agreed to include us in his next shipment coming down from the Powell River area . We sold seven hundred or so dozen oysters to Alan on that first shipment. The money was not as good as what we had received from the Asian company but dealing with Alan was a pleasure and at least we did not have to pay for the trucking costs. We have gone on to sell many more oysters to Alan and I now enjoy the odd lunch and always great conversation with him. There are more tales of approaching the really big guys when it comes to selling oysters but I have blogged on enough for now and will save them for later.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Obstacles & New Friends

The winter months can often prove a tad challenging when trying to get to our oyster farm. Last week was a perfect example of the weather causing a big glitch in our plans. I had arranged with our Asian buyer to provide a decent number of small and medium oysters for a February shipment to Singapore. All of this meant Bob and I had to get to Nelson Island and work on pulling up and bagging the necessary oysters, and placing them on our small pebble beach to "harden" before they were trucked to Vancouver. Hardening the oysters before shipping is achieved by exposing the oysters to the rising and falling tides on the beach. When there is no water covering the oyster it will shut its' shell tight. This daily exposure to the air and clamping tight the shell will make for a stronger oyster for shipping. Basically the hinge that holds the oyster closed gets much stronger and when the oyster is out of the water all the lovely oyster juice is kept in the shell with the oyster.

Back to trying to get there. Vancouver had been covered in an unbelievably thick fog for about ten days when we decided we had to make the trip to the island. I knew the banks of fog stretched far up the coast and using our small boat to travel from the marina where it is moored to our dock on the island was not an option. Travelling on the water when the fog is really bad is almost impossible. There is no way to see the shoreline, the sky, other boats, or the water ahead. Just plain scary really. We had to get there or we were out of luck as far as selling some of our best winter oysters. We came up with the idea of driving to the marina and then taking a water taxi from there. Water taxis all come with GPS and radar. Fog is still an issue for them but at least they can make the journey. The only problem with all of this was the cost. It really irked me having to pay so much when we would be making so little for the oysters. The cost of the water taxi closest to our marina would have been $300. We then remembered another water taxi service closer to our cabin in Blind Bay. We would have to travel further by car and take another ferry but we thought it was worth it. I called the woman that owns the water taxi and got our "time and where to meet" plans arranged. I had heard a lot about this lady, Sue and her husband , Bob. Some of the local characters that actually like living on a tiny island in what most would consider the middle of nowhere. These kind of people are always interesting to me. Bob and I arrived at Saltery Bay after five hours of travelling by car and ferries and were relieved to see Sue and her trusty water taxi waiting for us. Sue hopped out and introduced herself while helping to heave all of our luggage and coolers on to her boat. She appeared to be a bit younger than me , but not much, and was in top physical form. Our heaviest bag was no problem for her. As we headed slowly out into the murky mist all around us Sue told me she had wanted to meet us for some time now. She couldn't imagine what kind of city-slickers would buy an oyster farm and then go on to work it. We swapped stories and reminisced about the "old days" when my dad had first purchased the island property and life was so much better. Great runs of herring and salmon swam through the bay and summer was always wonderful and perfect. In the end I think she thought we were ok. A little crazy , but ok. Funny how people that live such a different lifestyle are not too phased by other people's weird behaviour. I really liked Sue and was glad to have her as a new "island" friend.

We worked two full days in the freezing fog, 0 degrees during the day and -2 at night. Incredibly cold! We got the work done that we had come to do and gave ourselves a big pat on the back for surviving another couple of really tough winter days on the oyster rafts. The morning we were to leave the fog had finally gone and the dawn spread out across the bay with a rosy pink light and a pale blue sky. We loaded our gear on to our dock and waited for Sue to arrive to take us back to warmth and civilization.

When the water taxi showed up Sue was not the captain , instead it was her hubby Bob. Just like Sue he was a real pleasure to meet and full of information on the goings-on around our big bay. As we motored away from the old cabin Bob told us some of the local gossip. A new summer neighbour not far from our property had lost some ten million dollars in the now disastrous stock markets. According to Bob this fellow was weathering the storm as he must of had some twenty million to start out with. We laughed, sure this was one of those tales that grew every time it was told. I love good gossip and am sure Bob will provide good company and good stories in the days ahead. We will definitely make a point of keeping in touch with our new pals Sue and Bob.