The May River Oyster Company:Promoting sustainability, quality and a whole lot of passion
Author: Laura R. Wilson | Photographer: Laura R. Wilson
The May River Oyster Team
When we are around people who are exuberant, excited and enthusiastic, it can be contagious…and that is a great ‘thing’ to catch! That excitement is exuded by the owners of the May River Oyster Company, a company located in Bluffton, owned and operated by the Harter-Young family. The team, as they call themselves, consists of Brad and Olivia Young, their son, Dillon and nephews, Austin and Andrew Harter. All are South Carolina natives, and many generations of their family have been enjoying the beauty and the bountiful harvest of the magnificent May River for over 100 years.
Olivia’s father, Joe Harter, instilled in his children the importance of family, staying close, giving back to the community and his love of the Lowcountry. With those tenets as a guide, sustainability is a key focus in their desire to give back by doing their part to preserve the May River. Other folks will talk about concerns of preserving the majestic May. These folks are not just talking; they are taking action.
Sustainability is important to an estuary where oysters are still susceptible to declines due to over-harvesting, physical disturbance to the shell beds, and increased siltation. “From our initial conception, the May River Oyster Company committed to doing things the hard way, because it’s the right way,” Brad said. “When harvesting in the wild, we practice a method called ‘culling-in-place,’ meaning we only remove the mature oysters, leaving the dead shell and smaller oysters intact to reproduce, grow, and continue to provide habitat for future generations of multiple species. When too many oysters are clustered together, they can kill one other, so by removing the big guys, we’re creating more space for the little ones to grow; and by spreading out the culled oysters, we’re extending the reef line, which will eventually lead to more oysters!”
The May River Oyster Company takes pride in the fact that their farm is also “planting” thousands of oysters, which takes a tremendous amount of harvesting pressure off the wild population, allowing them to leave the shell banks and reefs more intact. And of course, more oysters create cleaner water; cleaner water allows for more sunlight; and more sunlight means more grass beds on the bottom—a vitally important habitat for crabs and fish.
When Olivia gives a presentation on oysters, as she did at the recent Music to Your Mouth event at Palmetto Bluff, she relays the image of an aquarium to the audience, explaining how the oyster works like a filter for the river.
Andrew (left) and Austin (right) Harter cleaning out the oyster bags.
“Imagine an aquarium you have in your house. If you removed the filter, how long do you think the fish could survive?” she asks. “The water quality continues to decline, eventually making life unsustainable for the fish. The oyster performs the same function for the river. The more oysters you have, the more water gets filtered, and the health of the environment increases for all species. This is the reason we practice sustainable harvesting practices and add many more oysters to the river by farming.”
Looking for quality oysters? Look no further! The reward reaped from the hard work at The May River Oyster Company is quality. Chefs, restaurant patrons, business owners and their regulars are raving about the superiority of these oysters. Claus Villebro, CEO of Royal Teak said, “I have, in the past 30 years, had oysters from all over the world. However, when I had your oysters, they topped the list of freshness and best tasting oysters I ever had… Truly, truly a great tasting product.”
Austin and Andrew planned a morning (that just happened to be 37 degrees) when I could accompany them to the farm. These guys have been on this river since they were babies, and it is evident they love it. The day-to-day operation is about keeping the cages and bags that hold the oysters clean and changing them out when needed. Andrew explained how an oyster starts as a swimming larvae until it sets as spat. Spat is when a larva of an oyster has settled by attaching to a surface. From there, he explained, it takes several years to reach the size and thickness needed to harvest. (An ideal harvest size is three to three-and-a-half inches.) Singles or cups are sought after by chefs as they are looking for a nice round, deep oyster to enhance their patrons’ experience by adding a beautifully presented oyster.
As we were talking, Andrew relayed stories about some of the many sights he has seen along the way, from an annoyed marsh hen to a huge bald Eagle to a group of otters crossing the creek. Watching these oystermen at work and listening to them as they explained all they do was fascinating and made braving the cold worth it.
The lesson continued as Austin held a wild oyster in one hand and a farm raised in the other. “The farm raised are going to be shorter, but much wider and deeper because they are not as crowded as the wilds,” he explained. “Where an oyster grows plays a huge part in their taste, and raised in the high salinity of the May River gives these oysters a distinguished, sought-after flavor.” Austin then washed an oyster, shucked it and handed it over for me to taste: salty, sweet and delicious.
Passion radiates from these folks at The May River Oyster Company when they speak about their oysters, the farm and the future. “We believe that we can truly make a difference not only for today, but for the future of this beautiful May River we all enjoy,” Brad said.
“Shuck ’em, Let’s eat!”
The May River Oyster Company is a pick-to-order company, so you are guaranteed the freshest product possible. For more information or to place an order, call (843) 384-2292, or contact them by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org; and be sure to check out their website at mayriveroyster.com.