A young Mainer returns home to farm oysters on Casco Bay. With 140,000 oysters growing in the Harraseeket River she might need a bigger plot for her farm.
Five minutes from Freeport’s Harraseeket Harbor, Emily Selinger slows her boat, “Mignonette,” approaching what looks like several ladders floating horizontally. “This is my little farm,” she says. “I have the rights to 1,600 square feet right here, which is fast becoming not enough. Essentially, I rent this space from the state.”
What looks like rungs are actually just the top of underwater mesh bags, each filled with oysters at various stages of growth. She pulls a bag out of the Harraseeket River, gently pours oysters out onto the floor of the boat and nudges them around until she finds one about 3 inches in diameter.
“Do you like oysters?” she asks, retrieving a shucking knife from her bag and scolding herself for not having brought a lemon. She makes quick work of the hinge then holds out a shell, the oyster meat and juice shimming in the morning sunlight. The other half of the shell she tosses back into the gentle waves. One for me, one for the sea.
“We call it oyster farming, but it’s more like a garden,” Selinger says. “Because what do I really do? I come out here and weed, then I harvest oysters. This whole operation stands on the weather, water temperature, water nutrients and stuff floating around in the sea.”
Selinger, 29, comes from a family of sailors. “I pretty much spent my entire childhood on this river, sailing and exploring,” she says. “So, when I was thinking about this, I knew immediately where I wanted to put my farm.”
When she put in her application for a lease with the Department of Marine Resources, Selinger planned for her farm to be out of the way of waterfront property owners, boaters and lobstermen. But she also knew where there would be perfect conditions for oysters—nutrient-rich water racing by with each tidal flush. Selinger’s friend Amanda Moeser, a PhD student in marine science at Antioch University New England, had researched historic populations of wild Eastern oysters in Maine and discovered they once grew by the thousands on the flats around the southern side of Bowman Island. The two women have situated their farms at either end of this stretch of habitat. Within squinting distance, Selinger can see Moeser’s Lanes Island Oyster Co., which sits at the mouth of the Royal River in Yarmouth. While those wild oysters are mostly gone at this point, Selinger occasionally turns up a big old beauty as she wades around her farm at low tide.
When the women met four years ago through Selinger’s uncle, Selinger had just stopped sailing professionally up and down the East Coast between the Virgin Islands and Canada and was looking to be back in Maine, working on the water and calling her own shots. She just hadn’t figured out how she would make a living.
“I took her out one day on my boat and showed her the farm,” Moeser says. “And I told her she could try growing a string of oysters.”
By 2017, Selinger was in the aquaculture business for herself. She started with 10,000 seed oysters, and those are the oysters she’s been harvesting in recent months. She has been steadily adding seed and currently tends upwards of 140,000 oysters.
Oyster farming is not a fast return on investment; oysters take two to three years to reach harvest size. Selinger has subsidized her startup with personal savings, a boat borrowed from her father and her pay from hauling traps several days a week for a longtime lobsterman. She used a $5,000 grant from the Libra Future Fund for Mainers under 30 to outfit her garage as a retail location. She also received a $1,500 grant from The Island Institute as part of its selective Aquaculture Business Development Program.
“We have definitely seen growth in interest in small-scale oyster aquaculture in Maine,” says Susie Arnold, a marine scientist from The Island Institute. “With climate change, we are going to be running into problems feeding the world’s population, and it’s important to think about sustainable food systems. Shellfish and seaweed aquaculture require no outputs that exacerbate climate change. They’re taking things out of the water that we have in the water in excess and using that as fuel.”
An adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of seawater a day. “It’s a super sustainable way of produce a lot of protein,” Selinger says. “This industry is huge for Maine’s future. Our coast is perfect for it, with all the nooks and crannies. And there’s a lot of uncertainty in lobstering. If our ocean warms up too much for lobster, they’ll be gone. But oysters will be here.”
While most oyster farmers—including Moeser—sell to distributors, Selinger is taking a direct-to-consumer approach. Besides selling oysters out of her garage in Bath, she also offers “harvest to doorstep” delivery within 25 miles of Freeport, at $2 an oyster with a minimum of a dozen.
Taking a page from what she calls “land farms,” Selinger is also offering a community supported agriculture (CSA) model. Over the period of a year, a $200 membership buys eight dozen oysters spread throughout up to four deliveries, as well as a shucking knife, glove, cooler bag and—for those new to shucking—an in-person lesson.
“Oysters have always been this premium restaurant product that people think you need to be a professional to serve them,” Selinger says. “But that’s not true. The idea behind the farm share is to help folks get used to shucking oysters and eating them at home. It’s a great thing for people who entertain a lot. And you can experiment with condiments at home.”
“Oysters, like wine, will pick up some essences of the spaces where they are grown. And oysters that come from Maine are the cream of the crop.”
Selinger’s favorite is a simple mignonette of 1/2 cup white or red wine vinegar, a medium shallot diced really, really fine, and a healthy dose of freshly ground black pepper. She serves this in a little bowl alongside a dozen oysters—or two or three dozen—with a tiny spoon for drizzling and lemon wedges for a squeeze of freshness.
“Oysters, like wine, will pick up some essences of the spaces where they are grown,” Selinger says. “And oysters that come from Maine are the cream of the crop. There’s just something about coldwater seafood.”
Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer from Scarborough who does indeed enjoy a fresh oyster, lemon or not.