On a lovely August day in usually humid southeastern Virginia this Local Pickins staffer went to learn a bit about oyster farming with Andy of Pepper Creek Shellfish, in Mathews County. Andy is a second-generation oyster farmer. His Dad started Pepper Creek Shellfish after receiving positive feedback from friends and family about the oysters he was harvesting from the Creek for personal use.
This farm is a small family operation: they’ve used their oysters to create their own line of ready-to-eat appetizers and selling to local restaurants. They lease 60 acres within the beautiful Pepper Creek, which connects to the Mobjack Bay and ultimately feeds into the Chesapeake Bay.
Great ready, here comes the science lesson part of this blog post: although this part of the country is great for growing oysters, it’s unfortunately also great for growing an oyster parasite called Dermo. Dermo kills oysters, and has contributed to the decimation of the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay for the past 100 years. Fortunately, hard work and scientific innovation has helped the oyster population recover, and you can learn more about the Chesapeake Bay “oyster renaissance” in this podcast by the Kojo Nnamdi Show.
Since you can’t mess with the water temperature and salinity in the oysters growing environment, Andy explained that using the fast growing, sterile triploid oysters is a good way to prevent the parasite. Click on that link about triploids for a nice explanation about the history and benefits of triploids, as written by the Washington Post. To summarize briefly though, triploids grow faster than sexually reproducing oysters, which means that they grow to market size faster than it takes to become vulnerable to the Dermo parasite. The fact that tripods don’t spawn can also benefit their flavor, and they seem to remain generally safe to eat even in the warm months (defying the old rule to only eat oysters in months with an “R”).
Pepper Creek does not have a hatchery, so they buy all of their oyster babies. Much like Island Creek Oysters (see this summer’s earlier blog!), they monitor baby growth and move them through different-sized sieves as they age. The difference is, in Virginia all this monitoring can be done in the creek because it’s warm enough.
Pepper Creek Harvest is timed carefully with the tide, and oysters are gathered almost exclusively at low tide. Andy, his Dad, one full-time staff member and some seasonal employees harvest just by wading into the water, grabbing the cages, and hauling them out by hand. Not necessarily easy, but no dredge is necessary. Protection from the elements is, however, imperative, especially when it’s 40 degrees in January and local restaurants place their usual orders. And don’t get Andy started about what a hurricane can do to their business.
There’s something else that requires special equipment, as well: protection from cownose rays. The Chesaspeake Bay, Mobjack Bay, and its rivers and creeks, attract large numbers of rays because they love mollusks. The warm waters plus the ample supplies of bi-valves are a playground for the rays, which can clean out an oyster reef in a single night. At least the predators have good taste! That means Pepper Creek has to hang nets from buoys on the surface down to the creek floor. All those years I spent playing in the waters of the Bay (I am a native Virginian), I never knew I could be swimming with rays.
Pepper Creek culls (harvests) its oysters right where they’re grown,, bags and tags them and then Andy himself delivers them to local restaurants. This family operation allows Andy to develop great relationships with his customers. Andy was even kind enough to help one restaurant shuck oysters during a local restaurant competition. He was pleased to see attendees taste, marvel at the flavor and ultimately cast the votes that led to two of the three awards of the night going home with said restaurant.
Pepper Creek has been delivering delicious oysters for decades, working with mother nature and science to help the Chesapeake Bay oyster population recover, ensuring the survival of this vital economic resource. They are a local business which any foodie would be excited to sample and proud to support!