Georgia’s oyster harvesting season ended last month and won’t start up again until the fall, but some Georgia oystermen still are hard at work.
That’s because they’ve developed a new, more commercially viable way of oyster-growing.
A businessman says it’s all in the way the oysters look.
Justin Manley’s commute consists of a 20-minute boat ride. Several times a week, he motors a path through the tidal creeks of Liberty County, through miles of tall, green marsh grass, to his oyster beds in waters leased from the state.
“You got St. Catherines Island to the south, Ossabaw to the north and the opening to the ocean straight in the middle,” Manley said.
He recently dove into the oyster business because of more than a decade of research at the University of Georgia.
The Michigan native worked at the UGA marine lab in Savannah, where he learned about a new way of growing Georgia oysters so they can be sold individually instead of in bags by the bushel.
He owns one of three new Georgia businesses that grow oysters using the new method.
“For many years, the university and people in the industry were working really hard to figure out how to actually successfully cultivate single oysters,” Manley said. “And they were working, and they were working, and finally — all of a sudden — now there’s a solid method where you can actually do it successfully. And now it’s like, bam, everybody wants to get into it now.”
Manley said the method involves taking young, wild Georgia oysters, bagging them and carefully tumbling them in the tides so they won’t grow in bunches like most of the state’s oysters.
They also won’t grow thin and gnarly like typical Georgia oyster, he said. They’ll grow individually, compact and rounded, like the mostly Pacific varieties that restaurants serve on the half-shell.
“The amount of meat in that little tumbled oyster is almost identical to the meat that you’d get from one of these larger oysters,” Manley said. “So you’re still getting the same amount of meat; you’re just packing it into a smaller package that looks nicer.”
“So, I guess it’s packaging,” he added. “It’s not too different from Coke, Doritos or anything else.”
Those who use the new method employ it in the summer, when oysters are growing.
Chefs will pay more for a more presentable oyster.
Roberto Leoci, executive chef and owner of Leoci’s Trattoria in Savannah, said the new farming method lets him sell Georgia-grown oysters that look like the kinds customers expect on a $16 plate.
“Like the West Coast oysters, like the kumamoto, they’re too small to cook with,” Leoci said. “His oysters, I’m able to add my own product to it to use it as a vehicle.”
When they’re in season, Leoci uses Manley’s oysters, serving them raw and putting them in dishes like oysters carbonara and oysters Rockefeller.
UGA researcher Tom Bliss said growing individual oysters opens up a whole new market.
“We’re trying to help revive an industry and really give alternatives to our oystermen here,” he said.
There still are challenges.
The new method is labor-intensive and can’t produce the volume for large profits. That might take a large investment.
But oyster lovers can rejoice at more options, and both the tumbled and wild Georgia oysters have a salty tang.
Manley said he loves both kinds — gnarly, wild ones and pretty, farmed ones.
“Once you’re exposed, you’re either an oyster eater or you’re not an oyster eater,” Manley said. “You have that small percentage that, no matter what you do, the idea of eating something alive grosses them out.”
And no amount of packaging can crack that oyster.
This article was reprinted with persmission from GPB.