Ready to go full-time—with Ice House Oysters

Toni Small and John Cotton tend their floating oyster farm.

It has taken three years, but John Cotton and Toni Small have finally developed their oyster farm in Ice House Cove to a point where tending the oysters has become a full-time job. “Right now we’ve got about 150 bags of oysters growing and with the addition of this year’s babies, we’ve got almost 300,000 oysters,” says Cotton. “I’ve switched from going out to turn the bags once a week to going every couple of days. By next summer we’ll be able to sell 20,000 or more oysters every week.”

The start-up period for the couple’s business, which they’ve named Ice House Oysters, has taken longer than with other oyster farms, Cotton explains, because of their decision to establish their farm off Howard Head where the St. George River meets the ocean. “Ninety-five percent of all oyster farms are up in mudflats because the water is warmer there—oysters grow faster in warmer waters. So those oysters mature in one or two years. Our oysters are in colder water, so the maturation time is about three years. But we decided to grow ours closer to the ocean water to make our oysters different, to have a different flavor, which they do—they are much more briny than everybody else’s.”

Ice House Oyster’s intertidal lease

Another advantage to choosing the Ice House Cove location for their farm, the couple says, is that the mix of salt water and fresh water that occurs at the mouth of the St. George River provides an especially rich mix of nutrients. That, the couple believes, combined with the fact that during the first year they raise their baby oysters in the intertidal zone, gives their oysters a real developmental boost.

“We put the babies in traditional oyster bags, but they are actually out of the water for a couple of hours each day,” Cotton explains. “That means they rotate every six hours and that gives them the cup shape faster so there’s more meat. After that initial year we take them out to the floating farm.”

Right now, Ice House Oysters are small, a size termed “petites” in the oyster business. “These are usually the most expensive oyster because they are more concentrated in flavor,” Cotton notes. “We will eventually also have larger-size oysters, but it is my feeling that the petites are the best because although they are young, they are still old enough to have a strong shell. It’s also just the right size to have enough meat. And I think they are perfect for beginners because if you’ve never had an oyster, it’s best not to start with some giant thing. I think the main reason people don’t like oysters when they try them for the first time is the feeling in your mouth, a big globby thing. So if you’re a rookie it’s best to start with a petite.”

For Cotton, who has close to 40 years under his belt as a commercial fisherman, turning to oyster aquaculture is crucial to his and Small’s economic future. “We commercial fishermen always looked down on aquaculture, but I think moving to aquaculture is really the only option left to make money in the off season. We used to be able to go shrimping, urchining, ground fishing, and scalloping but we don’t have that anymore. Shrimping is closed, scalloping licenses are closed, ground-fishing licenses are closed and there are very few licenses out for urchining because the resource is so scarce.”

And with climate change, Cotton adds, it is now possible to harvest the oysters in the winter. “Before you had to take a chain saw and cut through the ice.”

—JW (Ice House Oysters are available for sale by the dozen at the Hedgerow Market in Martinsville [8 Ridge Road] and directly from Cotton and Small [207-593-6885]).

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