Conventional wisdom says that oysters are best enjoyed during those months containing the letter “r,” making September through April prime oyster season. Traditionally the warmer summer months were to be avoided lest you risk consuming the dreaded “bad oyster,” at least in part because oysters left un-iced spoiled easily and could host bad bacteria.
The adage dates back to at least the late 1500s where it appeared in an English cookbook, as science-writer JoAnna Klein points out in a myth-busting article on the subject for the New York Times. Over time, of course, fisheries have made great advances in oyster farming techniques and refrigeration that, so long as they are raised in healthy water and properly handled, makes local oyster eating safe pretty much any time of year.
On a recent overcast morning, we visited the Lowcountry Oyster Co. — “Lowco” — situated amid the winding dirt roads, woods, and bogs that make up the ACE Basin, to learn more about oyster farming and what it takes to make a thriving oyster business in South Carolina.
Before agreeing to team up with his childhood friend — owner of Lowco, Trey McMillan — vice president Malcolm Jenkins was traveling the world.
“I’ve got a finance degree and was doing marketing and branding work from my computer and traveling a bunch,” says Jenkins. Seated inside the small trailer that provides an office space for the team just on the lip of Mosquito Creek, he explains that the idea to start an oyster farm came three years ago.
“Trey had a past career as a professional sport fisherman. He was super successful at it, running big boats and competing in fishing tournaments,” says Jenkins. But after 15 years, McMillan was looking for a life after fishing. Following a trip to the Chesapeake Bay where he stayed with friends who ran their own oyster farm, a seed was planted.
“The gears started turning. It wasn’t anything that was gonna happen immediately or quickly, but he [Trey] was like, ‘that’s cool, I could do that,’ and he started looking into the potential to do it down here,” says Jenkins.
Currently, according to Ben Dyar with South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources’ (SCDNR) Office of Fisheries Management, there are a total of 38 mariculture permits in circulation in South Carolina. Mariculture is defined as the controlled cultivation of shellfish in confinement from seed size until harvest. This approach includes the cultivation of clams, oysters, or both as opposed to traditional wild clam and oyster fishing. Currently only 10 of the 38 are exclusively for oyster farming.
Compared to the 173 Maryland oyster farmers who in 2016 leased more than 6,000 acres of the Bay and its tributaries as reported by Bay Journal, South Carolina’s mariculture farming business seems like it is still in its infancy.
And indeed, back in 2015, Jenkins says that there were even fewer oyster farmers, with only a handful of people they knew in the industry. “There were just a couple of people, a guy down in Beaufort, Frank Roberts, for example, who was one of the frontrunners … we’re still kind of on the first wave here,” says Jenkins.
After some initial research, a year-and-a-half ago McMillan got more serious about the idea and reached out to Jenkins about helping with branding and marketing.
“We had this moment where it just clicked. We were like, this is a perfect opportunity, we can work together and our skill sets are very complementary, and we obviously have a good working relationship because we’ve been friends for like 30 years,” he says. And so, about a year ago, the duo who grew up together in Mt. Pleasant’s Old Village started the permit process, which currently, Jenkins says, can take between 16 to 18 months.
“It’s a pretty slow process, which is good and bad. They are being careful who they give them to. They don’t want to just give farms to anyone because, environmentally, it is very positive, but in the the wrong hands it can be very detrimental.” This may account at least in part for the relatively low number of active farms.
According to Dyar, the regulations for mariculture permits vary depending on what type of gear is being applied for and can be complex due to the required coordination of three different permitting agencies.
In the meantime, Jenkins and McMillan negotiated to take over St. Jude Farm’s lease. It was a perfect fit, Jenkins says, because they were winding down their business and Lowco needed the highly specialized equipment, specifically set up for a large scale oyster farm, that was already on the property. You can hear the whirring and drone of the machinery as we talk.
Now, Lowco says they are the largest floating cage oyster farm in South Carolina, with even bigger plans in the works (pending another permit they are waiting on).
What oyster lovers can expect from Lowco, and generally from farmed oysters as opposed to wild oysters, says Jenkins, is consistency.
“If you think of farmed fish or farmed shrimp — it sounds like a bad thing to most people. But it is actually the opposite of that for farmed oysters. Wild oysters are great, but they’re kind of dwindling worldwide. There’s still a bunch of them in South Carolina, we’re very lucky, but farmed oysters are more consistent in flavor, in meat quality, and in shell strength and shape. They are also super sustainable so they’re kind of the high quality stuff.”
A part of what is making wild oysters scarce, in addition to increased pollution, is a shortage of oyster shells, which is where baby oysters make their beds. After fertilization, wild oysters seek someplace to make their forever home. If they land in pluff mud they’ll die, so they form clusters, growing one on top of the other. This is another characteristic that distinguishes farmed, single oysters, from their wild counterparts.
What makes Lowco oysters special, Jenkins says, is how they are grown. Your average wild oyster, for example, is dormant for at least part of the day, during low tide, at which time they are not feeding. Using the floating cage system, in which mesh bags of oysters are placed inside of a large cage with two floaters on one side, cage farmed oysters are submerged for most of their lives, growing deeper and fatter with round the clock access to the phytoplankton and algae that sustain them.
In addition, farmed oysters are “exercised.” During our visit the Lowco team was processing the oysters through a cylindrical hopper, designed to jostle them, breaking away clusters, and as Jenkin’s puts it “give them a little bit of a workout.”
“A lazy oyster left to its own devices is actually going to grow long and thin,” says Jenkins. But by making them do work, the oysters grow down, forming a deep cup. “That’s why we call our oysters Lowcountry cups,” he adds.
If you were worried about Hurricane Florence’s impact on oyster supplies, fear not. Dyar says, “The impacts from Hurricane Florence on South Carolina’s oyster populations and the availability of open areas for the recreational and commercial communities to harvest were extremely minimal.”
That said, the storm did put Lowco out of commission for a couple of weeks because they had to submerge their oyster cages to the sea bottom to avoid damage. “It’s better safe than sorry,” says Jenkins. “We know some guys up in North Carolina who lost everything.”
Charleston locals can enjoy Lowco’s Lowcountry cups at a growing list of establishments including: NICO, The Darling Oyster Bar, Parcel 32, Prohibition, Rappahannock Oyster Bar, and Wood & Grain, just to name a few. This is just the beginning says Jenkins, as they move forward with plans to expand to Savannah, Hilton Head, Beaufort, and beyond.
The forecast of growth in this market is consistent with DNR’s expectations. Dyar says, “DNR has already seen an increased interest in mariculture specifically with floating type gear and we do expect to see growth in this area. The key is to work with the industry for growth to be done responsibly and sustainably so everyone can benefit from their product including the citizens, visitors, restaurants, the surrounding natural resources, as well as the farmers themselves.”