Already 10 years into an oyster farming effort, Dr. Bill Walton is pleased with the resulting 18 commercial farms operating in Alabama.
“I love seeing pickups going down the road with oyster bags in the back and somebody’s making a living on it,” Walton said. “We’ve seen some high school folks come out and start working as oyster farmers, we’ve seen some kids actually come back from going to college and come back and work farms. That’s real exciting to me to see a younger generation coming into it to make a living.”
Walton, director of the Auburn Shellfish lab at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, will host the Off-Bottom Culture of Oysters Forum on Feb. 19 at the Fairhope Unitarian Fellowship hall. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. and a $5 donation is suggested. Another presenter will be Chuck Wilson of Navy Cove Oysters on the Fort Morgan peninsula. The Local Food Production Initiative of Fairhope is sponsoring the event.
“We’re going to talk about this new wave of how to grow oysters and get into the history of that — because it only started about 10 years ago — where we’re at now and where it’s going,” Walton said.
Off-the-bottom oyster farming is taking place on both sides of Mobile Bay, with farmers growing and wholesaling oysters headed for the restaurant table.
“The folks are growing oysters in some type of basket or bag up off the bottom,” Walton said. “This allows the farmer to protect it from predators and from getting buried in the mud. Some of them are mom-and-pop farms, not very large, and some are trying to harvest over a million oysters a year.”
Because they are grown much the same way as wild oysters, Walton said there’s not much difference in the taste.
“I love my wild oysters but one of the neat things about farming oysters is that you’re not feeding them and you’re not medicating them,” he said. “You’re really just sort of taking care of them in the water. They take on the flavor of where they are grown. To compare, the flavor is very similar because it really depends on where they are grown and what salt they are grown in, how much food there is in the water and what kind of food.”
Because of the hands-on approach, farmers can somewhat mold how the oyster develops and can turn out more ideal oysters than those grown on the bottom of the bay.
“What I think that stands out about the farm-raised oysters is there are consistently high quality,” Walton said. “Believe it or not, they can affect the shape of the oyster by how much they handle it and so you can grow an oyster that’s the perfect size with the deep cup so it’ll be nice, full, firm meat. And relatively clean shells because they weren’t grown on the bottom.”
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