For centuries, farming has been a staple of South Carolina’s agriculture, economy, and general livability. Long before European settlers inhabited the land that would later comprise the Palmetto State, Native Americans farmed it for corn, beans, squash, and other crops. Later on, Europeans grew what became widely recognized as the state’s cash crops: cotton, indigo, tobacco, and rice. Today, a trip across the Carolinas reveals the continued vitality of South Carolina’s farming industry, ranging from rolling cow pastures to towering cornstalks. However, one type of farm remains largely unseen, even from the most rural stretches of county back roads.
Oyster farms have been a part of South Carolina’s farming scene since European colonists first settled in the state. While many colonists sought land for sprawling rice plantations, others looked below the surface for another chance to capitalize on one of the state’s natural resources — shellfish. These hard-shelled harvests had a lot to offer; not only did their salty flesh make for an unmatched Southern delicacy, the lime content in their shells was used for fertilizer, chicken feed, and even early concrete mix.
As oyster consumption — often paired with a pint of ale — flourished in the early 1800s, so did oyster farms. Oyster farming in the Lowcountry proved to be a profitable yet grueling business as demand for the briny bivalves increased across all social strata. Marshlands became money markets as entrepreneurs like David Truesdell, a wise New Yorker who relocated to South Carolina, established himself as the Oyster King by monetizing an oyster plantation that spanned nearly 400 acres of marshland around Sullivan’s Island. He subsequently opened The New York Oyster House restaurant with locations in Charleston and Columbia.
While logistics and operations have inevitably improved since the 19th century, modern-day oyster farming operations are anything but automated. Julie Davis, farm manager at the Beaufort-based Lady’s Island Oyster since 2018, explains that their harvest of roughly half a million oysters annually requires constant attention and ongoing assessment of process improvement opportunities.
For almost a decade, the farm-to-table process at Lady’s Island Oyster has begun with an indoor hatchery. Prior to 2014, the company imported oyster seeds from Virginia — a common practice among oyster farmers in the state. However, a moratorium on oyster seed imports introduced by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources that year forced Lady’s Island to pivot in a pinch. Fortunately, the oyster aficionados had already incorporated a hatchery into their long-term plans.
“Lady’s Island Oyster stepped up and said, ‘Well, it was in our plans to start a hatchery long term, but I guess we’re doing it now,’” Julie says. Soon, the hatchery was up and running, producing seed for not only their own farm but also seven other oyster farms in the state and several in North Carolina. “The hatchery really and truly was a business incubator for an embryonic industry.”
After spending roughly one month in the hatchery, the microscopic oysters are transitioned over to the on-site nursery. Here, they settle into silos and are constantly fed fresh seawater. Like any nursery-age living organism, they require exorbitant amounts of attention during this phase, including routine grading to ensure similarly sized oysters are grouped together. Julie focuses the majority of her energy on the hatchery and nursery in late February into early March, often spending 18 hours a day, seven days a week attending to the fledgling mollusks. She equates the level of care required at this stage to parenthood, saying, “It’s like being a mother to a newborn.”
Once they outgrow the nursery, Lady’s Island oysters are sorted into mesh bags, placed in floating cages, and strung out along the Coosaw River. This deployment method has been in place since 2014, when a perfect storm of factors coinciding with the oyster seed moratorium propelled Lady’s Island Oyster into the era of floating cages. In fact, Julie says, their quick adoption of the new technique and accompanying technology positioned them as the state’s primary dealer for oyster grow cages. As a result, the farm became a one-stop shop that helped to propel the industry’s statewide footprint from three to eight sizable oyster farms in a matter of only two years. During this time, Julie says, Lady’s Island served as a resource hub for oyster growers along the Carolina coast. “Everybody was able to come and get their knowledge, get their seeds, and get their cages,” she says.
Prior to the introduction of the floating cage method, local oyster growers primarily used bottom cages or opted to go the wild harvest route. While similar in design to floating cages, as their name would suggest, bottom cages are built with leg-like appendages that allow the cages to hover just above the soggy marsh bottom. The problem with bottom cages, though, is that there is no good way to control biofouling. Cages quickly become hosts to barnacles, seaweed, boring sponges, and other marine life, which makes for a messy oyster. According to Julie, oyster consumers do not subscribe to the old adage warning against judgment of a book by its cover. Instead, they prefer to pick their bushels based on beauty. In light of this, Julie says, “We’re in the business of producing a beautiful oyster for the raw bar market. People eat with their eyes first.”
Fortunately for oyster roast addicts and raw bar enthusiasts, floating cages yield a much more attractive and appetizing oyster. These showcase shellfish are the product of a fully submerged growth environment in which oysters benefit from a constant water source and frequent cage-flipping, a crucial step which helps to prevent biofouling. Moreover, oysters grown in floating cages are exempt from the negative effects of the sun, which prematurely bakes oysters that find themselves precariously positioned above water during low tide. This exposure, in turn, stimulated growth of vibrio bacteria, which is harmful when consumed. Now, floating cages create a literal safety net, sheltering the shellfish from serious sun damage and helping to ensure that they mature into happy, healthy, harvest-worthy oysters. They have also significantly amplified the availability of this must-have mussel as the S.C. Legislature granted permission to harvest oysters year-round in 2019 because of the ability to have oysters continuously submerged.
After 12 to 16 months, during which time the oysters are constantly rotated, sorted, and otherwise monitored, harvest time is at hand. These salty delicacies, measuring about 3 inches long, are then distributed to restaurants and retailers along the coast, from Beaufort to Charleston.
Further down the Coosaw River, Randy Dunlap experienced firsthand just how demanding these Single Lady shellfish can be. Randy, a Columbia resident who seeks reprieve from the capital city at his Lowcountry residence tucked deep within the Saint Helena Sound, explains that his homegrown oyster experiment was a humbling, albeit enlightening, endeavor.
“I figured I was going to raise them up to giant-sized oysters and have a big oyster roast with friends at the end of the year,” he says. After a first failed attempt using a milk crate, Randy purchased a few oyster cages from Lady’s Island Oyster, then set out to farm his meager crop. However, he quickly encountered many of the common challenges that oyster farmers face — namely a lethal mix of storms, predators, and parasitic marine organisms. These threats, along with the surprisingly high-maintenance nature of oysters, were enough to convince him that relying on the professionals was the safest and surest route to a successful oyster roast.
“Long story short, you’ve never paid enough for an oyster. What looked like a very easy, no trouble deal was anything but. There is a lot more to it than you might think. I figured it was like having a pet rock. I thought all I was going to do was put this in the cage and come back six months later and have real oysters.”
While Randy’s oyster farming enterprise was significantly scaled down from the massive operation at Lady’s Island Oyster just down the waterway, the lessons in patience and persistence are the same. Julie says that patience is not a character trait that comes naturally to her but rather one that a career in farming has taught her the hard way. “Probably the lesson learned in the hardest way possible is being a little more patient,” she says.