EASTHAM – Over the town line a mere two miles away, world-famous Wellfleet oysters are planning a huge party for this weekend. It is called Wellfleet Oysterfest. Bands are invited. Thousands of other humans are too.
But here at low tide on the Eastham flats off First Encounter Beach, the sweet succulent oysters of Samoset Seafarm are growing slow and steady, waiting their turn to go to other parties in other places.
“I don’t think they allow an Eastham oyster” at Wellfleet Oysterfest, said Alison Bissett, co-owner of Samoset Seafarm. “It’s just funny, I don’t get that,” she said. “I used to be almost envious.”
On the other hand, said Bissett, “I totally respect the Wellfleet oyster. After eating it, and knowing how famous it is all over the world,” Bissett said she realizes that Oysterfest actually helps all Cape Cod oyster farmers.
KC Power, her boyfriend and her partner in Samoset Seafarm, said of the Oysterfest, “I’m grateful. They made the name. The market started super humble, and now it’s worldwide.”
“I’m totally in support of Oysterfest,” said Bissett. “As an oyster lover,” she said they may go to festival this weekend, depending on the surf in Rhode Island.
Power is avid surfer, recently reticent to surf on Cape Cod because of sharks, who said he has heard “there’s going to be pounding surf this weekend in Rhode Island.” If it changes, he said they would would probably go to Oysterfest.
“Oh yeah, we’ve been a bunch of times,” said Bissett. “Before we had our oyster farm, we actually met our landlord at Oysterfest. It was his birthday,” she recalled. “Oysterfest is awesome.”
An October Afternoon On The Flats Off First Encounter Beach
For this interview, Cape Cod Wave was greeted with oysters in the parking lot of First Encounter Beach. Bissett and Power meet here to work on their farm multiple times a week, when the tide, daylight, and their full-time work schedules coordinate.
It was a perfect way to start a couple hours of walking on the Eastham flats at sunset on a 70-degree evening in mid October. Is this heaven? Nah, just Eastham. The oysters were topped with a homemade cucumber (no onions) mignonette sauce.
“I found out last year that I am related to Myles Standish,” said Bissett. She had a DNA test done from an ancestry site and discovered that Standish, who came over on the Mayflower, which landed briefly and encountered Indians at First Encounter Beach (thus, the name) is her ninth generation grandfather. That’s a lot of ‘greats’ before grandfather, and, she said, quite a surprise.
Another surprise was when Power said, “Before we moved here in 2006, I had never had an oyster.”
But the worst surprise came upon commenting about how unbelievably nice their workplace was when Power said, “When it’s cold and there’s 40-miles-an-hour winds and you’ve got to sort and bring in a thousand oysters, it’s not quite as nice.”
But this day, with hardly any wind and the sun slowly melting into Cape Cod Bay, was summer-like spectacular.
For years, except in the summer months when he was not allowed on the beach, their dog, Osa, a lab/shepherd mix, would go out in the water with them. But on this day, Osa, now 11, decided to stay in the Power’s truck.
Power and Bissett are checking on the oysters they have left for the season, and pulling in gear for storage for the winter. They have slowly been bringing in gear for weeks.
At this point, only about 40 percent of what was out on the flats a few weeks ago is still out there. The rest is in what they call “the pit” which is underground storage that keeps everything, including hibernating oysters, above freezing. The house they rent came with the pit, she said.
The rest has been sorted and sold, and the equipment put away for storage for the winter. They have learned, through the years, to be wary of big storms taking their equipment far from the one-acre Samoset Seafarm.
Pulling a cart with big plastic beach wheels about a quarter mile out into low tide, Power noted that in Eastham, only an ATV or a cart like his is allowed on the beach. No trucks are allowed.
And an ATV is only allowed in the offseason. As budget-minded farmers dedicated to keeping their farm small, the owners of Samoset Seafarm, use a pull cart. The cart this day will be used to bring in a piece of equipment known as “a hotel.”
“We’re very comfortable with what we have,” said Power. “We’re a small farm and we like it that way.”
Bissett, 38, grew up in Sandwich and often went shellfishing in Barnstable. “One of my uncles took me all the time for steamers and clams,” she said.
Power, who moved from Marlboro to Hyannisport at 8, used to do a lot of scalloping in Hyannis.
Before moving to Eastham, Bissett said, “We had never lived anywhere where you could get oysters.”
When they moved to Eastham in 2006, she said, “the town had an amazing shellfish program.” And so Power and Bissette spent a lot of time in Salt Pond and became friendly over time with someone from the Natural Resources department. “He’d see us all the time,” said Bissett.
“He mentioned that one of the shellfish farmers was moving down south,” she recalled.
And so in December, 2008, they purchased the shellfish grant, 5,000 growing oysters, equipment, and a boat for $250. “We were broke and the whole world was going down the tubes,” recalled Power of that year.
Now, a grant in an Outer Cape town could cost ten times that, said Bissett.
Power, who is a painter, and Bissett, who works for Elder Services in Wellfleet, both have full time jobs and said the feel lucky to get the grant when they did. With the grant, they also had a supplemental income.
All they needed was a bit more equipment. “We spent the winter harvesting old gear lost in the marsh. You can go in there in the middle of winter, when it doesn’t have ticks,” said Power.
If they found equipment with a name tag on it, they returned it, but most of it was anonymous and seemingly lost forever until they brought it back to life. When there is a storm, he said, “the wind takes everything into the corner.”
Power said they also had to chase down their own equipment after several storms through the years.
The Business Of A Small Oyster Farm
The grant is run by the town of Eastham, said Bissett. “The town set it up so it was easy to get it transferred to us.”
They started with a half an acre, at the same location where the previous farm had been located, she said. “You have to go on a trial period as a farmer before they give you a full acre,” she said.
Over the past ten years, they learned from others as well as by trial and error.
There are basically three methods of growing oysters, which are farmed inside of a bag, said Power.
One is to have the bag in aqua trays, “which are extremely low to the ground,” he said.
A second way, which Samoset Seafarm also uses, is something that holds six bags. “Some people call them condos, some people call them hotels,” said Power.
“There is a new method,” said Bissett, “in which a bag is attached to a line and it flops around when the tide comes in.”
And they even have one old setup of a bag and rack on rebar. They used to have others, said Power, but they washed away in storms.
They use three methods but Bissett said, based on advice of an old time oyster grower they use the KISS method – Keep It Simple, Stupid. “That literally is the best advice,” she said.
“Everything comes off our grant in the winter. The oysters are hibernating. We put them in a pit. It’s underground, almost like a root cellar,” said Bissett. Our house came with an oyster pit already in the backyard. That’s where they are stored. Once it starts to warm up in the spring, they go back in the water.”
“As soon as the oysters start growing in the spring, we start selling petites,” she said. As soon as they reach 2-1/2-inches, they can be sold out of state.”
Oysters sold in Massachusetts are three-inches or bigger and get a slightly higher price than the 50 cents per oyster they get for petites, said Bissett. But it is not necessarily worth it for a small farm to wait for the oysters to grow the extra half inch for an extra nickel or dime they get for a full grown oyster.
Thus, said Bissett, a lot of what they sell to a distributor are petites.
Each week, coordinating with low tide, which is when they can access their oysters, Bissett and Power visit the flats and sort oysters in petites, full-grown and those that need to keep growing. They average about 1,000 oysters a week, which takes two low tides, each with about a four-hour window for work, she said.
“I honestly don’t know where the oysters go,” she said.
The only thing certain is that the oysters of Samoset Seafarm of Eastham do not go to the Wellfleet Oysterfest.
“I can taste the difference,” said Bissett of oysters from different towns.
And even the time of year makes a difference. “Our oysters are really sweet in the wintertime,” she said. “That’s my favorite time to eat them. It’s something about when they go into hibernation.”
Of oysters from different Cape Cod towns, she said, “They are all so different. They look completely different. And it depends how you grow them. Ours are maybe a smaller size, slower growing maybe. They definitely don’t have muck or mud on them. They grow on all sand,” she said. “I think that’s why you end up with so many pearls.”
Bissett said she has “found over 50 pearls over the years.” She keeps them in little containers, and plans to do something artistic with them at some point.
Oysters, explained Bissett, only grow when they are under water. As the tide is out enough to keep them out of the water eight hours a day, those are eight hours that Eastham oysters are not growing.
“For us, at low tide, I know where I am,” said Power. He looked out at the flats after the sun had set and he and Bissette were back in the parking lot. “It’s about the love for what we do and the love for each other.”
They are farmers of oysters, that most joyous of food. “We pretty much eat them once a week,” said Bissett.
And when they visit friends such as an annual gathering of chef friends in Falmouth, they bring oysters. Lots of oysters. “I love sharing them with friends, and watching people enjoy them. They are so expensive when you go out to eat, so it’s fun to bring a ton of them,” she said.
Bissett had one final bit of advice on finding the perfect oyster.
“The most perfect oyster is the one you are eating,” she said.
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