Every November for the past three years we’ve hosted a quail hunt for our top customers followed by a field party in the Virginia countryside. It’s an honor to give back to our most devoted customers, and especially in a way that feels true and authentic to our brand. This year we decided to celebrate the abundance of premium wineries, breweries, restaurants found throughout the commonwealth that make it so great.
Oyster farming, or aquaculture, has a long and storied history. The ancient Romans actually harvested oysters for human consumption as early as the 1st Century BC in the Italian peninsula. The oyster industry in France has relied on farmed oysters since the 18th Century. At the mouth of the Rappahannock River in White Stone, VA, Thomas Perry and Laura Johnson are keeping aquaculture (or mariculture) alive at White Stone Oysters, a floating oyster farm, since 2012. We chatted with Tom about his love of oyster cultivation and what sets White Stone Oysters apart from the rest.
How did you get into oyster farming?
I have a business management background from Washington College. I graduated and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Instead of just jumping into something right away I messed around and traveled a little bit. I had always had an interest in oyster aquaculture in Maryland. Believe it or not, but in 2009, oyster aquaculture was illegal in the state of Maryland. There was this ongoing battle over the watermen which historically had a lot of influence in the area. Growing oysters on a farm and harvesting wild oysters are two very different things. Aquaculture takes a lot of pressure off the wild farms and allows them to replenish.
I had a family friend who was also interested in aquaculture and also owned some property in southern Maryland. We embarked on a 6-month, cross-country trip to study the industry in other states. We knew we wanted to have a real understanding of the industry, rather than just looking at it from a perspective of what we’ve seen already done in Maryland and Virginia. I came back and started a business in Southern Maryland with my friend, but quickly realized we didn’t make the best partners. Around that same time I met Laura in Richmond and we decided to go into business together. (Edit: They’re now engaged.) Laura handles the marketing and administrative side of the business.
Tell us a little bit about your process and what sets it apart from other farms?
We buy oyster seeds from a hatchery. Our nursery is different because we have four 300-gallon upweller tanks that pull ambient water out of our creek, where our facility is. We pump water and algae through our oysters. The oysters just eat the algae. We go straight to our land-based upwellers to our oyster cages. They float towards the top of the water, where all the nutrients and algae live. There is better light penetration and the algae at the top of the water so they have better access to nutrients. The oysters are basically getting fed better
How does the oyster benefit from doing that?
A lot of people forget with oysters is that you’re dealing with a living animal. You would never pack 100 dogs in a tiny room. When they’re all packed in they don’t have room to open up and act as water filters and it diminishes their quality. We really try to understand what is happening in the environment around them. We have very little control over the environment. We’re very unique in the sense that we grow oysters actually in the Chesapeake Bay. We’re the largest floating oyster farm in the Western Shore.
How would you describe the taste of White Stone Oysters?
We have a medium salt flavor with a clean, buttery finish. That’s about as complicated as my description gets. For a bay oyster, we’re known to have a great salt flavor, which is sometimes rare with brackish water oysters.
How should you serve them?
Raw, absolutely raw. That’s the only way.
What’s next for White Stone Oysters?
We’re looking to double our nursery capacity. It’s currently not equipped to handle what we want to do next year. I would love to sell a million oysters in 2016.