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Steamboat Sets Sail  

Article by Jim Varner

Photography by Jim Varner and Catherine Owen

Originally published in River City Lifestyle

If you don't love life, you can't enjoy an oyster. There is a shock of freshness to it, some piercing intuition of the sea.” Eleanor Clark

I fondly remember my initial encounter with the venerable and enigmatic oyster. It was at the Pearl Oyster Bar in New Orleans, where my father considered it a rite of passage that I consume my first. With an established precedent as a peanut butter and jelly guy, the mandated task was daunting. The oysters were piled high in rustic coolers and meted out by a hulking figure of a man with an equally abrasive attitude.

The shucker produced a knife-like tool, dispatching the lid of the bivalve of a sizeable Gulf oyster and deposited it on the counter. My pre-planned tactic was to employ a cracker and ample ketchup, but the shucker interceded, “Your first must be without condiment, whatever you do after that to ruin the experience is your business.” Following this foray into the unknown, I have been a habitual consumer of the beloved bivalve. Is it an acquired taste? I can’t answer that, but I do know that a vast multitude has acquired a taste for these revered mollusks.

With that indelible memory on board, I braced myself against the side of the flat bottom boat skippered by Captain Daniel as it proceeded up the Wadmalaw River before turning into Steamboat Creek, an estuary south of Charleston, South Carolina. I was a lone interloper accompanying native Memphian Aubrey Sanders and her work crew on our way to the oyster farm she established with her business partner, Michael Kalista, in 2020.  

The oyster farm proved to be a radical departure from traditional farming. All that was visible on the horizonless, aquatic landscape were buoys in a linear pattern, supporting and marking the bounty below. The crew hauled in cages with internal bags containing hundreds of oysters of diverse sizes and stages of maturation. It was a warm day, so market-ready oysters required prompt refrigeration. Little time was wasted. The ride back to the land-based part of the operation was smooth and relatively direct, which was not reflective of the efforts expended by Aubrey in her quest to make the farm a reality. Hers was circuitous route, marked by regulatory hurdles and bureaucratic snares.

How does a girl from landlocked Memphis, whose family never owned a boat nor had connections to agriculture, find herself farming oysters in South Carolina? To me, that was perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the story. While obtaining her MBA at Stanford, Aubrey developed a passion for sustainable agriculture, but a definitive plan for pursuing it as a career had not yet emerged. That is when she took a leap of faith and signed on with an oyster farm in Charleston and soon realized that she could manage her own, and on her terms.  

The painstaking process of gaining regulatory approval encompassed two and a half years. Ultimately, Aubrey prevailed. The state commission, impressed with Aubrey’s preparation and command of her subject, declared that she had raised the bar for any subsequent approvals.

Aubrey’s passion stems not only from the culinary and potential economic benefits, but also respects the niche that oysters fill as a vital component of a healthy aquatic ecosystem. Aubrey’s emphasis on sustainability is reflected in the zero-in farming model, where nature provides the food source, and no fertilizers or pesticides are employed. A single oyster filters as much as 50 gallons of sea water each day, clearing toxins and consuming algae with resultant improved water quality. Farm-raised oysters also reduce harvesting pressure on wild oysters, allowing those recently decimated populations to recover from overfishing and serve their all-important purpose of creating reefs that sustain aquatic life while serving as natural breakwaters, preventing erosion, and thereby protecting essential waterways.  

Unlike wild oysters, which are fixed in reefs and intermittently exposed with tidal shifts, the subsurface cages take advantage of nutrient-rich top water where the oysters’ primary food source, plankton, is greatest. The oysters are continuously submerged and feeding, resulting in expedited and controlled growth. Fluctuating tides produce a rhythmic current that augments the oysters’ filtering capacity. Farm-raised benefits provide a predictable life cycle from seed oysters, four of which can fit on one’s fingernail, to oysters that are market ready in eight months.  

This genre of farming is labor intensive, requiring employers and employees alike to be engaged in every step, including pressure washing, sorting, cleaning, retrieving cages and even driving the boat. Everyone gets their hands dirty, resulting in a palpable esprit de corps. 

Steamboat Creek Oyster Farm produces 175,000 oysters annually, with immediate plans for expansion. They provide oysters to an ever-enlarging list of Charleston restaurants while remaining obedient to their original goal of ecologically friendly and sustainable aquaculture. The final product is a testament to persistence and a commitment to higher standards, but in the final analysis, only fully appreciated with a pinch of horseradish, a slash of lemon, and as Eleanor Clark aptly suggested, a love of life.