Heave ho. Heave ho. In mysterious fathoms below…To sail the high seas you have to love being on the water. So too for braving the elements seven days a week caring for oysters. Tim Henry took the latter route. After working for almost thirty years at a “normal” job, he retired and founded Bay Point Oyster Company, producing some of the finest oysters in New England.
Tim works from dawn until midafternoon seven days a week on the boat and additional hours on the business side of the venture at home, yet he insists he is retired. He’s gotten away from a working life he considered a slow death. He has a boss he can’t complain about (himself). He’s not working out, but working at this new endeavor is driving off the pounds and he’s feeling great, at one with nature. The plan is to continue this “retirement” for 10 years. It’s not really a job when you’re doing something you enjoy.
Oystering is interesting farming. If you look at his “field,” you don’t see a thing except for a few buoys marking the boundaries and crop centers. In order to care for his crops, Tim has to make them visible. His oysters are in cages in 7 feet of water at low tide. Each cage has 8 bags made from a heavy duty plastic mesh with different size openings. Ten cages are tied together at a buoy and he has a number of buoys in his 4 acres of Little Bay in the waters of New Hampshire near Durham.
Oysters start as “seeds” about the size of a pepper flake. Tim purchases his babies when they grow to about pea size. They’re sold “by the liter.” Then he puts them into a fine mesh bag with about 300 per bag. As they grow he transfers them to bags with larger mesh openings. This is where the work comes in—actually there’s work at every step, but this is some of the most time-consuming and labor-intensive.
Every morning when the tide is low Tim and an assistant or two row a dinghy out to a pontoon boat specially fitted with a chain hoist, indoor/outdoor carpeting, a sorting table, and a porta-potty. (He was able to purchase this over Craigslist!) The work starts with pulling up one of the cages to inspect and clean the oysters. Often the anchoring lines can get tangled, so detangling may take some time. Then in a series of activities the team hoists the cage a few feet, locks it in place, hoists a few more feet, locks in place, a total of three or four times until the cage is at boat deck level.
The crew clears away the seaweed, hauls out the bags one by one, and inspects and sorts the catch. Stowaways like little crabs, fish, or eels are put back into the bay.
Small oysters are shaken in the bag to rearrange them in a flat layer. Larger oysters are dumped onto a sorting table. Some are twins that won’t develop to salable size, but if they are broken apart at this point, they can start growing separately. The more the outer edges of the oyster are bumped and abraded, the deeper the oyster spoon will be; restaurants love deep oysters.
Dead oysters, which have opened and the insides are long gone, are thrown back into the water. This inspection and cleaning happens every couple weeks for each cage, so by the time of harvest, each oyster may have been touched 20 times—fairly labor intensive.
The full cage weighs several hundred pounds when the oysters are market size. This work is good for building upper body strength.
Oystering creates a natural reef, drawing fish and birds to the area of Little Bay and Great Bay, which skirt a natural wildlife sanctuary. The oysters take nourishment from excess nitrogen in the bay, actually improving quality of this freshwater resource. In Tim’s pre-retirement career, he was a water expert, serving as the Director of Utilities in Ipswich, Massachusetts. With water services a big part of that job, he knows and cares about water quality.
For Tim, the idea of oystering started as a seed over 30 years ago when he had a college class in aquaculture. Then real life took over. He moved to Colorado, a great thing since he met Gerry, his wife-to-be, there. But he wanted to be back in New England and so they returned decades ago. For the year leading up to his retirement, Tim worked on a business plan, researching all the details to prove to himself that this could be a profitable venture rather than a moneypit hobby. His business card is the sunrise on the first day of his retirement, symbolic of his new start.
Tim “planted” his first oysters on July 31, 2013. He expects to be able to sell commercially by the end of the month, September, 2014. We were very fortunate to sample some of the early pickings last night as part of a great meal that George and Thida Chigas hosted. These were my first oysters, Michael’s too—not too many oysters in the waters of Keuka Lake! One thing about oysters—they don’t taste like chicken. In their natural salt water or with a little lemon juice or some cocktail sauce, they’re unique.
Today we joined Tim on his boat in the afternoon on an overcast 60-degree day. He had already put in a full day’s work, but took us out to demonstrate the process. Then we went for a chilly tour of both bays. Afterward Tim dropped us off on shore and rowed his dinghy on the solitary waters at the end of the day.
The guy loves the water, no matter the weather. He’ll be harvesting a million oysters a year pretty soon. Now who’s up for shucking?
Watch for the best oysters in the country, Bay Point Oysters, coming soon to a raw bar near you.
Tim, thanks for the tour. We wish you fair winds and following seas.
2016 update: Tim Henry and his own Franklin oysters have made it to the big time with a mention in the Boston Globe! Way to go, Tim. You’re the (oyster) man!
2018 update: We just stumbled across this 2014 video of Tim’s operation. Click on it and you can see what we saw.
EAT MORE OYSTERS!