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Jan 11, 2021
An Hour With an Oyster Farmer
You know you are in the south when your local oyster farmer invites you to sit on his back porch and enjoy a conversation about oysters and the coastal lifestyle. It was a beautiful and sunny afternoon in Wilmington, NC in December when James Hargrove of Middle Sound Mariculture said I could stop by and chat with him about his business and his love of oysters. You know that feeling you get when you start a conversation with someone who is passionate about their work? The sense that they could talk about it for hours on end and never tire of it? That’s exactly how I felt immediately when I met James and we started our chat that day on his porch. His southern hospitality along with his vast knowledge of the oyster made me almost lose track of the questions I had written down to ask. Most of them, he answered without me having to ask, anyway. James started oyster farming after attending UNCW. He has his Masters Degree in Applied Aquaculture and I have to admit, I think James is the first person I’ve ever met that has a Masters degree in this field. His education is certainly being applied in what he does and he helps to educate others about his business.When asked how he stands apart from others in the industry, he stated that “Location is key.” James went on to explain that flavor profiles are influenced by environment and simple things like rainfall, tide and even proximity to an inlet can make various impacts on oysters. Even after a hard rain, oyster flavor can change due to salinity.Of course, I had to ask James if Covid-19 had affected his business in the year of 2020 almost expecting his answer. There were certainly impacts due to restaurants being closed during the pandemic but, Jason certainly seemed to have gotten past those horrid weeks and was looking forward to having a chance to still grow his business in the years to come. Obviously in industries that involve mother nature, James worries about Hurricanes but, he states that industry regulations are the thing that he has to battle with most. He also states that he would love for people to move past the misconceived notion that oysters have to be consumed in certain months of the year in order to be safe. He says he is seeing a slow progression toward that but, still not quite fast enough.I immediately knew that James was a hardworking man and as he talked more about his goals,dreams and plans, I can just tell that he will really take Middle Sound Mariculture to the next level. He proudly sells his oysters to several restaurants such as Tidewater Oyster Bar and Wrightsville Beach Brewery and to Locals Seafood who has locations in the Raleigh area.I am excited to continue to follow James' journey and see where it takes him while he works in the region of North Carolina that has been referred to as the “Napa Valley of Oysters”.
Oysters taste different based on where they are grown and the multiple environmental factors that influence the growing region. The most notable is salinity. Oysters that are grown closer to inlets typically have a higher salinity, imparting a briny flavor coveted by many oyster eaters. The “finish” of an oyster refers to the flavor that lingers on the tongue. A well-balanced oyster can be described as has having a mineral, vegetal, umami, earthy, meaty, mushroomy or sweet finish.
Tarheel Tiderunner - This oyster is grown in the outstanding resource waters of Stump Sound adjacent to the Permuda Island National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR). This system is renowned for producing top quality shellfish. These oysters have a mid to high salinity (22-34 ppt) and are well balanced with strong vegetable afternotes. If you are from the area, you have probably heard about these amazing oysters.
Topsail Topstone – This oyster is grown in the crystal-clear waters of Topsail Sound behind Topsail Beach less than a mile north of New Topsail Inlet. The highly productive waters of this farm impart a crisp clean flavor profile. The high salinity (29-34 ppt) and clean mineral finish will “take you on a mini vacation to the beach.”
Masonboro Pearls – This oyster in grown in Wilmington’s backyard, Masonboro Sound! This farm is also adjacent to the Masonboro National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) and has high salinity (33-36 ppt) and a buttery texture. It’s been said that “eating these oysters is like getting a kiss from a mermaid”, due to their brininess that is balanced out by a sweet afternote. Oysters produced from this farm are named the Masonboro Pearls after our daughter Pearl Hargrove.