Watch Hill Oysters in Westerly, RI
Some of what we grow is available year-round.
Grown in Winnapaug Pond
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Westerly, RI - When the wind is blowin’ 40, the snow is pelting you sideways and you are standing waist deep in frigid salt water, you better love your job.
During the balmy months of summer when flip-flops, swimming trunks and rubber gloves are the uniform, life is good on an oyster farm. Then temperatures start to drop, out come the hip waders, the layers of fleece and those not-so-waterproof gloves, testing even the hardiest of personalities. Despite the variables, Jeff Gardner of Watch Hill Oysters and his crew relish their work as they persevere, in all temperatures and all types of weather. Maybe it’s the nonstop banter back and forth that keeps them going or maybe that on any given day, life at work defies convention under an open sky.
Gardner wasn’t looking for a future in bivalves. He grew up in New Jersey, son of a New York executive. After attending college at the University of Rhode Island, tinkering with marine biology and majoring in geography, Jeff settled comfortably in coastal Rhode Island. For the first 10 years, he employed himself through music as owner of two area record stores.
From his house, the captivating view of Winnapaug Pond ultimately inspired a career change and a chance to be on the water every day. In 1993 Gardner took the literal and figurative plunge. Just a short distance from his own back yard, Gardner “planted” his first seed oysters in Winnapaug Pond on a lease in water reaching 41 1/2 feet at high tide and about 1 foot at low.
Surveying his crops, Gardner can now boast one of Rhode Island’s prized delicacies: a federally trademarked oyster, the Watch Hill Oyster. It hasn’t come easily.
Anyone starting out in the aquaculture business should be equipped with ample patience and a good sense of humor. Salt water lease applications can be laborious, requiring navigation through a myriad of bureaucracies, rules and regulations. Once that course has been charted, there is the crop itself. Oysters don’t grow overnight. They can take several years to reach market maturity. “I trained myself by networking with other aquafarmers, studying periodicals, reading anything I could find and of course asking questions, lots of questions,” explains Gardner.
By 1997 Gardner was, “barely making any money. We were living off the sale of my businesses.” His wife Nancy works as a dental hygienist, so there is some security for the family in a regular paycheck. Gardner laughs and asks, “How do you make a small fortune in aquafarming? You start out with a big one!”
Down at the dock, the center of operations for Watch Hill Oysters, Gardner and his company prepare for battle stations, jokes battering back and forth with rapid fire, each man with his own given rank. James Agney is the “Field General” and the senior officer with four and half years on the job. “I love working on the water. When I am out on the pond I have no worries, no stress. Sometimes I can’t believe I get paid
for this,” he says, with a quick rib to his boss about the paychecks. Gardner is right there with a comeback.
The “Colonel,” Shaun Sullivan, has been on the pond full-time for a year and a half and, like James, is an old friend of Gardner’s son Tom. “It’s great working with these guys—they’re like family. For me it’s the best part of the job.” Tim Shortman, alias “Number Four,” has been working part-time for three and half years. He comes for a break from his other job and for the “outdoor therapy.” When home from college, Gardner’s son Tom picks up his traditional summer post as “Double Zero.” Tom is studying marine biology and business at Roger Williams University and wants to eventually take over the family operation.
Jeff Gardner is jokingly called “Admiral Signator” because, as his crew points out, “he signs the checks.” Gardner looks to them and says with a chuckle, “We have a small group of die-hards here. You need the right personality for the job, you need to enjoy crappy weather and you also need to be stubborn.”
All would agree that the working environment is a big draw. Rod
at the ready in case the fish are jumping, ospreys flying overhead and an idyllic setting with stunning views from the worksite are fringe benefits to a job that requires often heavy, repetitious labor.
Every oyster on the farm has to be tended several times monthly to encourage strong, steady growth. Over two million seed oysters are brought in each spring from sources in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York, are separated into trays and brought out to the lease on the boat. In the weeks and months to follow, the days are spent nurturing the young; shifting, sorting and re-grouping the older oysters between the “soonabees” and the 3-inch oysters, ready for market. Work on the lease continues until the pond freezes over.
Out on the boat, Field General Agney carefully steers over the tops of the black mesh trays filled with oysters. The trays, resting just off the bottom, are barely discernible from the top of the water and spread out across the five acre lease. He cuts the engine and hops in the water, wrestles a tray filled with hundreds of mature oysters, and heaves it up to the boat as the Admiral grabs the other side and pulls the tray in. The two survey the crop.
As necessity is the mother of invention, a 3-inch plastic electric wiring box serves as a perfect gauging tool for market-sized oysters. “You learn to use what works. I have invented my own ‘above-ground’ tray so that the oysters don’t rest right on the surface of the pond. Instead they benefit from the increased circulation of the water,” says Gardner.
Oysters are amazing creatures, filtering around 50 gallons of salt water every day, feeding on phytoplankton and processing nitrogen. In a salt water pond the size of Winnapaug Pond, that equals clean waters and a happy habitat for plenty of sea creatures, even some who aren’t welcome.
“It’s a tough business because there are so many variables out of your control like weather, predatory invasives like Asian Crabs and even regulatory requirements,” Gardner explains.
He is in the midst of a lengthy application process to expand his lease in order to keep up with demand for Watch Hill Oysters. A small number of nearby residents are in opposition to the expansion, further complicating the application. For now Gardner must limit his weekly harvest to maintain a steady supply throughout the year. “I like to think I am providing many positives through Watch Hill Oysters: a sustainable, locally grown crop; local jobs; a food source that benefits the environment; and a great product that is recognized nationally.”
In fact, Watch Hill Oysters were included in Rowan Jacobsen’s, A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur's Guide to Oyster Eating in North America, published in 2007. Jacobsen describes Watch Hill’s as, “unusual for being mild in salinity but full-bodied, with strong ‘oysterness’ and an addictive sweet-butter flavor that is especially apparent in winter.” (Watch Hill Oysters are Crassostrea virginica oysters, the same strain that grows up and down the East Coast, differing in size and flavor depending on the local habitat in which they grow.) Gardner’s oysters are fast sellers at New York’s Aquagrille and the venerable Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station. They can also be found on restaurant menus as far away as California.
What is a Watch Hill Oyster doing out in L.A.? Gardner sells his oysters through a wholesaler so, as Gardner puts it, “I can leave the market-side headaches to somebody else.” He adds with a smile, “It makes me happy, thinking of Watch Hill Oysters traveling around the country being enjoyed by so many people.”
Aside from running his farm, Gardner gives his time to different organizations, staying connected to Rhode Island’s small community of aquafarmers, as well as the broader spectrum. Gardner makes room on his lease to grow different strains of Crassostrea virginicafor studies run by Roger Williams University and University of Rhode Island, as well as Wood’s Hole Institute, University of Maine and Rutgers University. “It’s important to be involved and stay in the forefront of what is happening in aquaculture,” says Gardner. He serves on numerous boards including the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, the Marine Fisheries Council, the Ocean Aquaculture Association and the Northeast Regional Aquaculture Center. He is proud of his “Distinguished Coastal Steward” award from the Salt Ponds Coalition, an organization in which he has maintained an active involvement for 17 years.
Gardner finally reached profitability in the year 2000. Current harvest of the Watch Hill Oyster is roughly 1.2 million oysters per year. Purchasing seed oysters and new equipment every spring, keeping up with fuel prices, regulatory requirements and the day-to-day challenges growing beneath the surface of the pond—for Jeff Gardner, the weather is only part of the story.
Photo credits: Thad Russell