In June of 2002 my wife, Holly, and I started Humboldt Bay Oyster Company. Holly’s day job is a first grade teacher. Her seasonal job is fixing my mistakes with the company books. We have two phenomenal kids, Greta and Davis. We live in one of the most naturally rich areas anywhere. We enjoy a small town lifestyle amidst redwood trees, rivers, coastal mountains, rocky beaches, dune forests and our shallow, productive bay.
The beginning of my shellfish-farming career started while I was a student at Humboldt State University studying Fisheries/Aquaculture. I got a summer job learning to raise shellfish seed at Kuiper Mariculture, Inc. That is how I met Ted and Linda Kuiper. I was happy to have gotten that job and what turned into the career path that continues to be fruitful and rewarding beyond any expectation I had then. I got my degree and nine years later I was still on the job being challenged and rewarded nearly daily when an opportunity presented itself to buy the portion of the Kuipers’ operation that focused on producing larger single oyster seed. It was my chance to own my own farm and I took it – with a naïve smile and a moderate dose of anxiety.
June of this year marks the end of our tenth production season as Humboldt Bay Oyster Company. My smile is less naïve and I’ve learned to manage my anxiety somewhat. My first hire when I “bought the farm” is still with me. Ten years in and Conor Eckholm has become more to me and the company than his title of Farm Manager lets on. He is an integral part of the business and helps move the farm forward.
We are still seed producers and now also grow single oysters for the half shell trade. We nursery our oyster seed using suspended trays on rafts in a very productive slough that juts off the north end of Humboldt Bay. As the product grows from 2380 microns it is graded and placed into ¼” mesh bags and strapped to intertidal racks on the mudflats of the main bay to grow to ¾” seed or to be grown out to cocktails or smalls for the restaurants and oyster bars.
The mudflats in Humboldt Bay are just that – muddy and flat. You can get stuck in some spots if you stand there too long. Stepping off the boat may mean stepping out of your boots. We use rebar racks to keep the oyster bags off of the muddy bottom and to avoid smothering by silt. We have a tidal range of around 10 feet in Humboldt Bay. Most of our product is grown at a tidal height of roughly +. 05 feet to +3 feet. This allows regular access and avoids the lower elevation favored by eelgrass.
The tides dictate our schedule of course and our ability to get out there and care for or harvest the oysters. Caring for them usually consists of knocking them around a bit and flipping bags on the racks to redistribute them and chip the new growth back to encourage a deep, round cup. Harvesting, whether it be twelve noon or twelve midnight, entails winding our way through the narrow channels of the bay, beaching the skiff and dropping its bow door to load up with bags of oysters for the orders. There are lots of sore backs, cut hands and muddy faces. But, it is a richly rewarding endeavor. I get to witness the direct results of my efforts. I am out in nature, surrounded by it, tossed by it, covered in it. I get to use my hands to grow food that someone will relish. That’s cool.
We’ve had a lot of help through the years from the generous folks in this industry from San Diego to Bellingham; customers, vendors, PCSGA. I won’t try to list them all because I would surely neglect to mention someone. There is a customer who has helped buoy us while we grew and got better at this business. The guys at Hog Island Oyster Company have been instrumental to our growth and success. I’ve been shipping them seed since that first summer job. And they were the first to try my cocktails in their oyster bar. It is relationships like these that make being in this business so unique and fulfilling.
Ted and Linda Kuiper continue to serve as mentors and valued advisors to me and many others in the shellfish industry. The work they did in cooperation with Lee Hansen at his Whiskey Creek Hatchery propelled the single oyster market. They gave me my start in this field and because of them I can fully comprehend and appreciate the old metaphor of “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”. It is because of them that I have this opportunity now to make a living and support a family doing something I’m happy and proud to do.