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Pinke Post: My visit to an oyster farm

WISHEK, N.D. -- No matter where I travel, I always want to learn about agriculture in the area. Other than a farmers' market, I didn't know what type of farm we could visit around Boston or Cape Cod. The girls and I were walking along the flats o...

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Brewster Market Oysters, Katie Pinke

WISHEK, N.D. - No matter where I travel, I always want to learn about agriculture in the area. Other than a farmers’ market, I didn’t know what type of farm we could visit around Boston or Cape Cod. The girls and I were walking along the flats of Cape Cod Bay at low tide we stumbled upon an oyster farm - rows of cages sat in the sand. A woman and a girl worked on cages in one area and, in another area, two men worked with another set of cages.

I didn’t know exactly what was going on, but it reminded me of my husband’s favorite Discovery Channel series “Deadliest Catch.” I walked over to the cages, and my girls reluctantly followed. Elizabeth, 8, didn’t want me to embarrass her. Anika, 6, wanted to go swimming and was frustrated by the low tide. When I told them the people working with the cages were oyster farmers, their interest peaked.

I walked up to one man and could see he was sorting oyster shells. We introduced ourselves and told him we are from a farming family in North Dakota. I asked him if he could tell the girls about raising oysters. He showed how he measures each oyster and explained a market oyster has to be 3 inches long in order to be sold, but in New York oysters only have to be 2.5 inches long to be sold.

“What’s farming in North Dakota like?” he asked. Anika piped up and said, “Well, your field doesn’t look very good compared to ours.” We all chuckled.

A woman passing by heard me list off crops grown in North Dakota and asked more about canola, which led to GMO questions. At the end of our short exchange, she smiled and said, “Now I’ll think of blooming canola fields in North Dakota the next time I buy canola oil. I just never knew what it was and only buy it because it’s, you know, healthy.”

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As we walked away from our first oyster farm visit, Anika said, “I guess all farms are different.” Her first-grade expertise knows best.

Diversity in agriculture allows food choices and new uses for plants and livestock byproducts. Yet as the second oyster farmer, Mrs. Ellis, who we met when we visited again the following day, said: “Agriculture is agriculture, no matter where you visit. I’m originally from northwest Iowa, a little town outside of Sioux City.” I instantly felt a connection to the farmer. As she held a 3-inch market oyster in her hand, she said, “Just like livestock in Iowa, we start with low weights and sell high.”

Mrs. Ellis and her late husband started oyster farming in 1987. His family was one of the founding oyster farming businesses in the area. The landing near where we stayed is named after them, and the land was originally her husband’s great grandfather’s, similar to the land my family farms in North Dakota that has been passed down through generations.

The bay isn’t a tourist destination for her - it’s home. A few years ago, she hosted 30 classmates from Iowa for a high school reunion. Even though her husband passed away four years ago and her father-in-law passed away this year, she continues the family’s oyster business.

All oysters are grown from the same seed. It takes about three years to reach market size. Around Brewster, Mass., where we stayed, there’s low and high tide daily - the tide goes so far out you can’t see where the edge of the ocean starts, but three or four hours later, it rolls back in. The minerals are unique in that area and it’s located in the bay rather than the ocean. Oysters are what they eat, so where they’re grown effects how they taste.

Mrs. Ellis taught me so much about oyster farming as she worked. She talked about local, state and federal regulations, reminding me whether in aquaculture or farming wheat in North Dakota, farmers face similar constraints. She held up an oyster and said, “We’ll get about 65 cents for this and you’ll pay $13 to $14 for a half dozen in the store.” I told her we paid $18 for eight oysters in a local fish house restaurant the night before.

We parted ways, and I asked her permission to share my experiences in my column. I promised to bring the story of oyster farming back to the prairie. She smiled and agreed, saying, “Sprinkle some water on those market oysters before you take pictures. They look prettier with water on them.”

I was curious to learn more about Mrs. Ellis’ husband and his role in the oyster industry. I didn’t want to ask her about him, so I found his obituary online. Her husband jumpstarted the Brewster aquaculture industry with his business. She’s carrying on the family tradition, and I hope the young girl, Maddie, working alongside her will continue also in the oyster industry.

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Our first summer family vacation outside the Midwest was much-needed before our son starts college football workouts and summer school. I’m also grateful we saw a glimpse into Cape Cod aquaculture and had the opportunity to show our kids farms and fields aren’t all the same. Regardless, every farmer we know or come in contact with shares a similar passion for their land and growing food - despite the many challenges from the weather and volatile markets.

Mrs. Ellis shared how she pulls all the oyster cages from the bay in January to avoid sea ice, which cuts like icebergs. She brings the oysters home and places them into a deep pit below the frost line where they are dormant until spring. I promised I would never waste an oyster in my life in appreciation for all the work she puts into oyster farming on one acre of land (she leases her other acre to the first oyster farmer I met).

It’s my father-in-law’s family tradition to have oyster stew on Christmas Eve. My mom makes a corn bake with oysters and bacon. This year, I think I’ll ship in fresh Cape Cod oysters and share what I learned about oyster farming.

All farms are different - and I appreciate each one I visit.

Editor’s note: Pinke maintains her blog at thepinkepost.com.

Related Topics: FARMINGFAMILY
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