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The Accidental Oyster Farmer

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The Accidental Oyster Farmer
Photos by Jason Wallis
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Photos by Jason Wallis

Head due south on I-65 toward Bayou La Batre. Follow I-10 to County Road 39. The horizon begins to get flatter, but keep going. Take a few more turns until you find the exact dirt road you are looking for. Drive until you almost run out of land, and when you begin to see telephone poles again, start counting. When you get to seventh one, turn right. There you will find Steve and Dema Crockett’s place, home of Point aux Pins, some of the finest oysters you will ever have the privilege to eat.

The Crocketts’ backyard sits on Grand Bay in Bayou La Batre and serves as a one-acre oyster farm, producing thousands of bespoke oysters destined for a few select restaurants. What makes these oysters so unique is more than just their specific merroir, or aquatic provenance;  it’s the way they are grown. Working in conjunction with the Auburn University Shellfish Lab on Dauphin Island and aquaculture and fisheries specialist Bill Walton, the Crocketts have developed a sustainable method of oyster farming that can be replicated again and again.

The “seeds” of these Point aux Pins oysters begin at the lab. After spawning, thousands of spats—or tiny specks of oysters—are added to a tank filled with ground-up oyster shells.  These shells have been run through a sieve for sizing; each piece is the perfect size for a spat to make its home. In this manner, each oyster is individually set and will grow as such, not in the usual cluster. From there, the set spats are transferred to specially designed baskets at the Crocketts’ farm. Each basket is suspended on either end by long guidelines attached to anchored PVC posts, commonly called the Australian long-line method. In this way, the oysters grow off-bottom, free from natural predators like conch and oyster drill but still able to benefit from the rich tidal waters of the area. Baskets are routinely raised out of the water, allowing the sun and air to kill any biofouling such as barnacles and seaweed.

Steve and Dema Crockett are somewhat accidental oyster farmers. Moving to the coast from Kentucky, they originally sought a slower pace and a better porch view. Steve says, “Dema actually got us started on this back in 2000 when she saw something in the paper about a volunteer oyster gardening project. There was a graduate student working on her master’s thesis,” adding that the project was “modeled after one in Chesapeake Bay, involving oyster reef restoration.” Steve is a biostatistician by trade and works from home; it wasn’t much to add this project to the daily schedule.

He reports that at the time, “the shellfish lab would put clean oyster shells in a mesh bag out in the water, where the reefs are—Dauphin Island, Cedar Point. And at the spawning time, the spats naturally set on the shells. Then the lab distributed the mesh bags to the [volunteer] growers and we just hung the bags off our docks here—all around Mobile Bay, Coden, Bayou la Batre—and just let them grow. And during that first season, we collected data, and turns out, we had the best growth rates of anybody around here.” He gives a laugh and adds, “So, we thought, maybe we can do this.”

In 2001, after clearing numerous regulatory hurdles, the pair set out some lines on their property, just offshore, in the rich Grand Bay waters. But then Hurricane Katrina hit and destroyed their home as well as their oyster farming lines. As Steve puts it, “We decided to take a little break.” They regrouped and rebuilt and reconsidered their endeavor. But honestly, their timing could not have been better. Enter Bill Walton.

THE OYSTERMAN COMETH

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Photos by Jason Wallis

As an assistant professor and marine fisheries extension specialist at Auburn University you might expect Bill Walton to have strong Alabama ties, but his accent will quickly tell you that, as they say, he’s not from around here. A New Jersey native, he originally began farming oysters in Cape Cod after finishing his PhD at the University of Maryland. He and his wife, Beth, called the enterprise “a labor of love. We’d work the farm on the weekends or on very early or late low tides.” When not tending to the Bee’s River oysters, he served as the marine fisheries and aquaculture specialist for Cape Cod Cooperative Extension.

As their family grew, the Waltons longed for a more affordable place to raise their boys. When the position on Dauphin Island with Auburn became available, it must have felt like the stars aligned. Bill and Beth fell in love with the Gulf Coast and easily set up house where the breeze is filled with salty air. It wasn’t long after moving south that Walton and Crockett hooked up and began the Point aux Pins project in earnest, helping facilitate the Australian long lines setup.

Bill also oversees a fascinating project in nearby Coden: a fifty-acre oyster farm business park. Auburn University leases the aquatic property from local landowners and secures the requisite permitting needed to farm for oysters. Program participants select one of  four types of gear (long line, Canadian floating cages, bottom cages, or floating bags) and farm a two-acre section of this area. Walton notes, “A two-acre farm is enough for a husband and wife to make a living. It’s not going to make you rich, but a two-acre farm could probably gross somebody one hundred to one hundred fifty thousand dollars a year. You could have a nice life out here living on the water and it’ll pay your mortgage.” Going out on the boat to see the operation, his passion for sharing this life is palpable. He dons a wetsuit and jumps in, showing off the different types of gear and discussing the merits of each method. He adds, “Ultimately, I’d love to see one of our participants, maybe one our Southeast Asian immigrant families, say, ‘We want to set up over there.’ And we can help them with that permitting. This could be a place where you can be a member of the oyster farm business park or you might take the information and training you’ve gotten here and set up in Bon Secour Bay or someplace like that. In that way, we’ll be exporting the training to other areas.”

IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME

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Photos by Jason Wallis

It has often been said that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. Can the same be said for building a better oyster? Birmingham, Alabama-based James Beard award-winning chef Chris Hastings unflinchingly answers, “Yes.” As a huge supporter of Alabama Gulf Coast Seafood, Chef Hastings has always put his money where his mouth is, and vice versa. He regularly attends Gulf Coast Seafood Coalition meetings to keep abreast of what is going on in the region. It was at one of the meetings that he met Bill Walton’s wife, Beth, and she invited him to try some of the farmed oysters and visit the project. Hastings says, “When I finally got a chance to go down there and visit, it just blew my mind. When you see the amount of wildlife in the water, how clean and pristine that environment is, that the oyster is part of that healthy ecosystem, it’s the whole complete thing. What I learned about the process was that the churning of the baskets chips the forward shell, so it takes all that energy from going forward to building a deeper cup with a thicker shell.”

Clearly, it has been a trend in restaurants to call out the purveyors and producers on menus. With the Point aux Pins oysters, Hastings notes, “There is a real storytelling opportunity for us here at the restaurant. It’s a chance to say to our guests, there’s this really amazing ecosystem that exists in this beautiful bay that’s off the beaten path. It is arguably one of the cleanest bodies of water on the Gulf or maybe in the world. These oysters come from this cool new farming program that was previously nonexistent in the region.”

At the restaurant, Chef Hastings likes to serve the oysters in their raw state as often as possible. Given that the oysters grow individually, not in clusters, he is able to secure perfect specimens, every single time. “Not only am I always happy to support these local, these new endeavors, but I can get my nice Hot and Hot two-inch oyster that is kind of a signature product for us. They are aesthetically perfect.”

Basket of Fried Oysters with Fennel Slaw

Truffled Oyster Gratin with Parsnips and Fennel

Oyster Chowder with Saffron Creme and Homemade Oyster Crackers

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Photos by Jason Wallis