Shell Game: Accidental Entrepreneur Cultivates Passion for Oyster Farming

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Photo credit: Suzanne Opton
On a white-capped Monday in early May, Jules Opton-Himmel M.E.M. ’07 holds up an index finger speckled with a dozen translucent, pinhead-sized oyster seed.

We’re in Ninigret Pond, the shallow Rhode Island lagoon in which Opton-Himmel cultivates shellfish on three acres of sandy seabed. Four days earlier, he’d received a $5,000 shipment of seed — tiny oysters barely older than larvae — from a nearby hatchery, and this morning we’ve bounced across the pond in his handmade skiff to check on the seed’s development. The future of his farm, Walrus and Carpenter Oysters, now literally clings to his fingertips, and Opton-Himmel is nervous.
 
“If you look really close, you can see some of that frilly new growth,” he says, pointing at the tiny bivalves’ proto-shells. That’s the good news. The disconcerting news is that his upweller, a floating platform designed to pump nutrients and oxygen to the seed, is bucking in the choppy surf and threatening to slosh his babies — all 750,000 of them — out of their microwave-sized container. “I’d sleep a lot better if this thing had a plywood lid,” Opton-Himmel mutters as he rinses his hands in the upweller and watches the minuscule specks settle to the bottom.

We motor back to the west side of Ninigret Pond, where Walrus and Carpenter’s adult oysters are flourishing in three feet of greenish water. The oysters grow in mesh bags, bungee-corded to the bottom in long parallel rows, not unlike carrots or lettuce on a conventional farm. We stride up and down the rows in waders, Opton-Himmel pausing occasionally to rub his dark, trim beard and inspect his crop.
“These should be ready for market by July,” he says, palming a deep-cupped, two-inch specimen. Earlier that morning, he’d culled 400 oysters for a restaurant in Providence, R.I. — a fairly small order, considering that Walrus and Carpenter moved 3,000 shellfish a week during the summer of 2012, and planned to double that production this past summer. While the farm provides four annual oyster shares for 300 subscribers, the bulk of its business is conducted directly with about 20 restaurants around Rhode Island — particularly in Providence, where seafood joints and oyster bars abound. “Oysters are like wine: People really get into the nuances,” Opton-Himmel explains. He shucks me a sample, and I slurp. “Ninigret oysters are sweeter and not quite as briny as Wellfleets, but they’re more flavorful than Chesapeake oysters. We’ve got a good balance here.”

That Opton-Himmel became an oyster entrepreneur was mostly a fortunate accident. As a student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, his interests were terrestrial, focused on forestry and land use. But when he stumbled upon the Connecticut Department of Aquaculture’s website and discovered that oyster grounds could be leased for a pittance, a new passion was piqued.
 
“I’d always liked catching things, and growing things, and harvesting things,” Opton-Himmel says. “And I couldn’t get it out of my head that you could have rights to land underwater for not much money.”

After graduating in 2007, Opton-Himmel honed his shellfish expertise with The Nature Conservancy for four years, researching submerged lands and initiating a shell-recycling program. All the while, he and his now-wife, Joanna Carey M.E.Sc. ’07 — today a post-doc at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency researching how oysters cycle nitrogen — were driving up and down New England’s coastline in search of prime oyster farming waters.
 
“When we pulled into the marina here, it was so beautiful,” he recalls. Barrier islands and marshes sheltered Ninigret Pond from storm surge, and a nearby wildlife refuge buffered the lagoon from the pollution that is anathema to oyster beds. “Right away it was like, ‘Oh, this is it.’” By 2009, Opton-Himmel and then-partner Sean Patch — who amicably departed the company last year — had secured the requisite permits, and Walrus and Carpenter was growing a modest crop of 60,000 shellfish.
 
Four years later, Opton-Himmel has two million oysters under his care. The sailing hasn’t always been smooth — one summer, poor flow in the pond suffocated half a million oysters, and he’s consistently worked part-time as a consultant for a Maine landowner while Walrus and Carpenter noses above the break-even point. These days, though, business is strong enough that Opton-Himmel is contemplating a second farm, and will soon begin growing seaweed with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
 
“The whole point was to prove that you can create jobs, provide food and clean the water while still making a decent living,” Opton-Himmel calls above the roar of the engine as we slice diagonally over the chop, back toward the marina. “I’d feel like a failure if I only broke even.”

About the Author

Ben Goldfarb is a 2013 graduate of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where he served as editor of Sage Magazine. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, OnEarth Magazine, Yale Environment 360, and elsewhere.

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PUBLISHED: December 4, 2013
 

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