Lease Blues

So I’ve spent near two years prepping and waiting on my lease to come through from the state.  I was all set to go last summer, when a protest was received by DNR from a commercial crabber.  That pretty much ended my chances of starting in 2014.  Meanwhile, our local crabbing fishery experienced the worst year on record in terms of catch.  My oysters could have been in the river, improving the water quality and providing habitat for crabs, but that could not occur.  I spent the summer practicing with my boat and gear and raising some hobby oysters off of the farm dock.  Unfortunately the dock’s location is not ideal for growing oysters.  The salinity fluctuates too much and the flow isn’t that great.  Pretty much the opposite of the farm lease.  Nevertheless, I hired some part-time help and ran through the motions as I waited for the red tape/politics to play out.

As it turned out, that took quite a bit longer than expected.  The adjacent private property owners had installed an offshore hunting blind after I had applied for the lease and raised their concerns during a county public hearing.  More details can be read here:

Public Hearing Draws Full House

Oyster Aquaculture Plan Shakes up Watermen

I thought, “here we go”.  I had purposefully selected a shoreline with no waterfront homes or offshore hunting blinds.  I already had to relocate the application once, due to blind concerns by another owner.  In addition, I had been sending the private property owners written letters to try discuss the project, for the last year or so.  DNR had done the same.  Politics aside, the offshore blind was too close to my lease for comfortable long-term co-habituation.  I had to come to the negotiating table prepared to compromise.

This involved several rounds of private and DNR mediated negotiation with the protestant and private property owners.  There were points where I was infuriated and points where I’m sure the other side was less than pleased with me.  This proved to be a good lesson though.  I was pursuing a legal project with the full support of the state, and I had to remind myself that several times throughout.  Long story short, a compromise was finally reached that allowed me to start the farm this year (2015) at the current site (w/limitations) and move to a nearby site once DNR approves.  This was a win-win for all parties, in that I made concessions to limit the perceived negative impacts to crabbing and hunting and they agreed to withdraw their opposition and help facilitate the move to the nearby site.  The nearby site proved to be just as good, if not better, than my current site.  In fact, it’s an ideal environment for raising oysters, as they are sheltered from urban and agricultural runoff.  In addition, the site receives a salty flush from the bay and a nutrient rich flush from the river, both twice daily.  It should yield an excellent oyster.

Exhausted by the nuances, self-doubt and back-and-forth, I have now set out to ready the boat and build more gear, with an actual finite timeline in mind.  Thanks to my family, a whole lot of local support and industry advocates like Don Webster, I was able to achieve this.  There are other farmers that have spent years fighting opposition and still are not able to begin.  I feel for them and hope my story can help other beginning farmers navigate the choppy state political waters.

You can read more stories on the drama:

Oyster Farm Gets OK

After Delay, Farm Moving Forward


Extreme Boat Makeover


Gear, check.  Oyster seed reservation check.  Boat….

The boat is perhaps the most important aspect of an oyster farmer’s livelihood.  Sure, productive seed is paramount, but once you get it, you’re stuck with it.  Good gear is vital, but you don’t depend on it as much as your boat for your safety and transport.

Having learned that from veteran farmers, I set out in late 2013 with that mindset.  First, I identified the style of boat I needed.  Because I’ll be doing most of my husbandry on my lease, a flat bottom boat with a lot of capacity (space and weight) for gear and equipment seemed to be the ticket.  From my conversations w/growers, the Carolina Skiff was the best bang for the buck in that category.  The less accessories the better, for cost and ease of modification.

I scoured the internet high and low for an affordable skiff for several weeks.  Most were tricked out with big consoles or brand new and way out of my price range.  Finally, I found a solid looking older style skiff located in North Carolina.  I’ve never bought anything sight unseen from a private seller.  I was hesitant at first.  But the more I talked to the seller, who sounded like an honest southern gent, the more I thought this could work.  We agreed he would make the eight hour drive for a guaranteed delivery fee, and I could either pay him list price or walk away (more like he would angrily drive away, haha).

The day came and the Duck Dynasty arrived in May 2013.  It was just as described – camo painted from bow to stern with a rickety looking steering console and rough looking prop.  She ran fine during the sea trial (less the steering console breaking free in my hands) though and I closed the deal.  I was getting a great deal on a solid hull and the shortcomings would just have to be made up through a few hundred hours of hard work.

Over the next year or so, I spent nearly every weekend transforming the Duck Dynasty into a Shuck Dynasty.  I quickly realized that the previous owner was a much better hunter than boat builder and I pretty much had to strip her down do the bare hull before outfitting.  That involved countless hours removing stripped/rusted screws and bolts and cutting away old silicone beads.

Once I was down to the bare hull, I began to outfit her for oyster farming.  The first step was to get a port side bulkhead built, to tie my davit crane into.  I turned to a family friend and expert glassman, Ted Bachelor of Moonlight Yacht Services, to fabricate it.  It turned out to be an absolute tank and I’m never getting it out unless I sink the boat.  Next was to find a good welder to fab the davit crane for my cage hoists.  For this I commissioned Dick Wilson of WilFab, to help me design and execute the crane.  Dick is somewhat of a closet genius when it comes to metalwork and he helped me think through not just design, but workflow and engineered some nice custom pieces as well.  The final product tied perfectly into Ted’s bulkhead and I’m confident I’ll flip the boat before the crane or bulkhead give.  Both guys are established in their businesses and were very sympathetic to me just getting started in mine.  Having good, skilled people who also are your friends, is priceless.

The last, and certainly not least, steps involved me installing all of the systems on the boat.  New hydraulic steering, new steering helm, new engine controls, new electrical wiring, new hydraulic hauling system, patching all of the old hardware holes and a new washdown pump.  A big tube of 4200, lots of epoxy, countless trips to the town hardware store later, and the boat systems were nearly complete.  I left the hydraulic system for last, as I wasn’t sure where to really start.  I knew I needed a pump, some sort of control valve and a hauler, that’s all.

After researching and talking to as many old heads (Rock Hall slang for “wise person”) as I could, I decided on a simple gear pump driven by a 11HP Honda motor converted from driving a pressure washer pump.  The hauler was sourced locally after meeting a crabbing supplier at the annual Waterman’s Convention in OC, MD.  I ended up buying all my lines, JIC fittings and adapters from Long Cove Marina in Rock Hall.  They had a nifty JIC fitting machine and were able to produce exactly what I needed from my crude schematic drawing.

After finally getting the right valve installed, my Dad and I held our breath as we fired it up and hoped neither of us would lose an eye to fluid under pressure.  Fortunately we didn’t and the hauler worked beautifully.  The boat was pretty much ready to launch.

I’ll do an updated post w/launch results and let the internet know if it’s still afloat.  Plan on keeping it tied up to the floating dock, so will have a special bailing system in place as she now sits lower than before.  For now, feast your eyes on the before & after shots:

Bow1 A Bow1 BBow4 A Bow4 B

Helm1 A Helm1 B

Hydro1 A Hydro1 B

Starboard1 A Starboard1 B

Starboard2 A Starboard2 B

Stern2 A Stern2 B

Stern3 AStern3 B

Stern4 A Stern4 B

Stern5 A Stern5 B

Stern6 A Stern6 B



Cages Have Arrived!

With the departure of fall and the coming of winter, a lot of changes are occurring on the farm.  The annual Canadian geese migration is in full swing and the white tailed deer are entrenched in their rut.  Every morning is filled with the pop-pop of bird hunters and evenings with the dull thud of deer slugs.  A comforting sight is witnessing the daily return of the geese from the fields to the creek every sunset.

While most are focused on family and food, here at Orchard Point, we’re focused on family, food and…oysters!  With the chillier air temps, the water has dropped from the fall ~60 degree mark to about 40.  That means less algae in the water and slower oyster growth.  Sure enough, when we pulled our dock cages, they had next to no fouling and the oysters had barely grown in the past month.  We still gave em’ a quick clean and tumble in the Orchard Point spirit.  Looks like winter will be spent readying the boat and gear for the spring planting and not handling the oysters as often.

Jumping right into that mode, we set out to pick up our first big batch of gear from down on Eastern Shore of Virginia.  A grower friend of ours, Bob, graciously permitted our tiny (compared to his) gear inventory to piggyback on a tractor trailer down from New Bedford, Mass.  Unsure of how much space we’d need, we rented the largest moving truck one can rent and drove the three and a half hours to his farm.  Luckily we didn’t bang into too many things (maybe an unfortunate stop sign in VA) with the gargantuan truck.  It was actually pretty fun to drive.  Bob’s partner helped us load our cages and bags with his Bobcat and we were on our way.

Mom isn’t thrilled with the cages taking up space in the boat yard, but they actually don’t stand out too much.  Everyone pitched in, including Tucker of course, and we offloaded the truck with ease.

All in all, a very productive pre-Thanksgiving activity.  Personally, we’re very excited to have the cages on the farm.  There’s something more tangible about the future when you have the physical gear in hand.  Now it’s onto outfitting the oyster skiff with a proper crane and winch assembly!

Now that's a truck

Now that’s a truck

Tucker wanted a lift up

Tucker wanted a lift up

Clearing a space

Clearing a space

...take one down, pass it around...

…take one down, pass it around…

Tucker overseeing the operation

Tucker overseeing the operation