They Practically Sell Themselves
Katherine McGlade and the Slash Creek Oyster
Katherine McGlade is a farmer. An oyster farmer. But there isn’t all that much difference between how she raises oysters at her Slash Creek farm off Hatteras Village and any other land farmer.
She grows the oysters from seed. There are fast growers and slow growers and conditions are constantly changing.
“Nothing is ever the same. One year is different than the next year. One batch can be different than you plan,” McGlade said.
And then, there’s the weather.
“Of course there is the monster, the hurricane.” McGlade continues, “And not just hurricanes, but also other storms. Here on the Outer Banks we get a lot of really heavy nor’easters. Sixty mile per hour winds sometimes more.”
“It’s very much like any farmer anywhere. You’re growing food and you’re weather dependent,” she added.
McGlade, her husband Spurgeon Stowe, and three or four part-time workers, grow their crop of oysters on the surface of Slash Creek.And when heavy weather comes, there is a lot of work to do quickly.
“All of our gear floats on top. You have to take it off and keep it refrigerated,” she explains.
Oyster farms that raise their crop on the bottom are not as affected by weather, but off-bottom farming, like Slash Creek, has a number of advantages, including lower labor costs—they’re much easier to harvest—and have more control over environmental factors…other than the weather.
The Slash Creek farm is a far cry from the corporate world McGlade occupied for 25 years. And a far cry from her undergraduate degree in Chinese language.
“I felt I was tired of the corporate world,” she said. “And oysters and Hatteras seemed the perfect solution.
“I love salt water and I love being outside,” McGlade added.
My Outer Banks Home interviewed McGlade at her office, the front porch of a Hatteras house bordering Pamlico Sound. She, Spurgeon, and another worker, were transferring spat that had grown to be small oysters into two and three millimeter mesh containers.
It’s important to get the size right, she explained.
“If the gear is too big, the oyster will grow into it and keep growing into it, if that happens the gear and the oyster are ruined.”
In their new mesh homes, the young oysters are wheeled out to a waiting boat that will take them to the farm.
The journey from corporate America to her front porch began at the Duke University Marine Lab where she earned a Masters Degree in Coastal Environmental Management.
“The program they teach there is excellent, but it’s diversified. So you learn some biology and science, some policy, and some law. It gives you a broad picture of all things having to do with the ocean, and then you can specialize,” she said.
What McGlade decided to specialize in was oyster farming.
“I had studied a bit about the oyster industry in NC and I thought it was underdeveloped,” she said.
Citing “Maryland, Virginia, Connecticut and North Carolina…” she pointed out, “… were importing oysters from other states. I thought there was great opportunity here.”
Her belief was well-founded in the history of the oyster fisheries of the state. At one time, in the late 19th century, North Carolina’s oyster beds were some of the most productive in the United States. In 1897 almost 5.8 million pounds of oyster meat was landed. There are approximately 5.3 pounds of meat to the bushel. Doing the math, that would represent more than 30 million bushels of oysters.
By comparison the state’s 836,791 bushel harvest in 2017 seems paltry. The 1897 harvest, however, was not sustainable and was the high point of North Carolina oyster production. Within 10 years the harvest had fallen off to one third of that 1897 figure, and continued to fall throughout the 20th century.*
Given the history of oyster harvests in the state, McGlade was right that a great opportunity existed, but there was one very major obstacle.
“It took us four years to get a permit. This state had a regional condition imposed on it by the US Army Corps of Engineers that said there was zero tolerance of subaquatic vegetation (disturbance),” she said.
Subaquatic vegetation (SAV) are the underwater grasses that thrive in the waters of Pamlico Sound. They are an essential food for migratory waterfowl and a crucial habitat for spawning fish and crab.
As important as SAV is, the requirement made no sense. Oysters are an important part of a healthy estuarine system and in fact filter pollutants creating cleaner, healthier water.
Curious to know why a regulation that far exceeded any other state’s restrictions was on the books, McGlade asked the Corps of Engineers.
“They said to me, ‘We proposed it and they said it sounds good to us.’ They (state officials) didn’t really understand the practical implications,” she said.
Things began to change. Politicians and organizations pointed out the benefits of oyster farms.
“It’s good for the rural economy. It’s good for tourism,” McGlade explained.
“Various actors, one of whom was the North Carolina Coastal Federations, started to bring it to the attention to the politicians. Once the politicians got behind it, they started putting pressure on the Corps.”
In 2015 McGlade leased five acres in Pamlico sound and began farming her oysters.
The oyster both McGlade, and most other oyster farms use, is a triploid oyster—an oyster that is sterile. They come from fertile parents who naturally produce sterile offspring—think of a donkey and horse producing a mule.
“The reason we grow a sterile oyster is the reason why oysters were typically not eaten in the warm weather months. They were putting out so much energy to reproduce they were skinny.” McGlade continues, “But when they’re sterile, they never put out energy for reproductive material, so they stay fat and can produce 12 months a year.”
Her oysters reflect their environment. Slash Creek is close enough to Hatteras Inlet that the water is still salty. So the the oysters have a salty, slightly sweet flavor…a flavor that seems to be in demand.
“I can sell every oyster that I grow,” she said. “I was a little bit worried about that in the beginning. But they practically sell themselves.”
Next year I’ll probably be growing more than this year. We’ve been growing at a very thoughtful pace. I would recommend that to anyone who gets into the oyster business. There’s lots of lessons to learn,” ♦
Photos courtesy North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services.