THERE WAS A TIME WHEN JULES OPTON-HIMMEL ‘02 and SEAN PATCH ‘02 RARELY SPOKE OF OYSTERS. THEN THEY STARTED GROWING THEM. by Eric Gershon ’98
It’s an overcast June morning on Ninigret Pond, a coastal lagoon in Charlestown, R.I., and Jules Opton-Himmel ’02 is heaving floppy PVC frames into the water from a broad-bottomed lumberyard skiff. “Those should sink,” he calls out to a hand in a wetsuit who’s been working in the lagoon’s warm, shallow waters since just after sunrise. “Sometimes you’ve just got to step on ’em and fill ’em up.” Soon the frames will carry bags of growing oysters, stock in trade of Walrus and Carpenter Oysters, the aquaculture business Opton-Himmel founded in 2009 with friend and fellow former Outhouse resident Sean Patch ’02.
The duo harvested their first crop last fall and began selling to friends and family in New York City just before Thanksgiving, distributing their fresh fish from an apart- ment building rooftop and later from a TriBeCa art studio. Along with the oysters, they provided champagne and shucking lessons. Says Patch, “We tried to make it somewhat of an event.”
Around the time of the first oyster distribution party, Opton-Himmel and Patch went uptown on an errand. Months earlier, they’d e-mailed the sculptors of an ambitious bamboo installation on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Big Bambú, to inquire about their plans for the wood after the project came down. The farmers were thinking they could substitute natural bamboo frames for the submerged PVC pipes supporting their oysters. At last there’d been a response from the artists: Come and get it.
So, one Sunday afternoon last November, Patch and Opton-Himmel drove their pickup trucks down a long ramp into the bowels of the Met. From there they went to the roof, where workers were dismantling the sprawling artwork, and carried away a massive haul—roughly 10 cords of bamboo, or more than 1200 cubic feet. Afterward, they did what seemed natural: “We ended up shuck- ing oysters for everybody and seeing the sun set from the roof of the Met,” Patch says, still awestruck. Then they drove off with a load that offered environmental and financial ben- efits both: “We got it for free,” says Jules.
As luck would have it, the bamboo coup begat a publicity coup: Word of the friendly exchange between the artists and the oyster farmers reached the offices of The New Yorker, and Walrus and Carpenter Oysters became a feature in the magazine’s “Talk of the Town” column.
“It didn’t really turn into a lot of sales immediately, because we didn’t have much product,” Jules said later with a mix of rue and gratitude. “But certainly friends and family all read it. It got our name out there.”
There was a time when Opton-Himmel and Patch rarely spoke of oysters. That changed in 2007, when Opton-Himmel raised the idea of an oyster enterprise at a New Year’s Eve party in Vermont hosted by mutual friend Sam Kelman ’03, proprietor of Poorfarm Farm. At first Patch, who grew up in Maine, the son of a merchant mariner, didn’t take his friend seriously: “Then he was talking about it again the next year.”
About a year prior, while living on a sail- boat in the Hudson River off Weehawken, N.J., Patch had developed his own interest in oysters. He was teaching high school in New York after a short career as a foreign equities trader, and commuting to work in Manhattan by kayak. He was using sailing as a way of teaching real-world math and figured he could do the same with shellfish: “I was always looking for ways to get kids inter- ested in math,” he said. “‘Here’s another thing I like: Let’s calculate mortality rates and growth rates for these oysters.’”
Opton-Himmel, who grew up in New York City, had always kept alert for an enterprise that would offer him a life in the country. “I always wanted to have my own forest land or farm,” he says. While studying at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, he discovered it was possible to lease submerged land. He found a job researching Long Island Sound for the Nature Conservancy, and through this work met some oyster growers. He admired their lifestyle in the outdoors and their ability to earn a living “doing something good for the environment.” Oyster farming fit the bill. Inherently green, it adds nothing to the ecosystem, and oysters help filter the water by consuming excess nitrogen.
“I was just enamored of that whole industry,” he says.
After training briefly with an oyster farmer in Massachusetts, Opton-Himmel decided to start his own operation. Before long, Patch Jules Opton-Himmel ’02 and Sean Patch ’02, former Outhouse residents, at Ninigret Pond in Charlestown, R.I.
was on board, indulging his own interest and reciprocating Opton-Himmel’s characteristic “appetite for adventure.”
“If I ever had an idea and was looking for a partner to try it with,” Patch said, “Jules was up for it.”
Patch, who studied economics and envi- ronmental science at Wesleyan, also shared Opton-Himmel’s interest in green-business. “I was always interested in how a business could make a profit and benefit the environ- ment at the same time,” he said. “It’s some- thing I desired that Wall Street wasn’t giving me.” (Patch founded his first business as an undergraduate. A+ Storage provided sum- mer storage for Wesleyan students.)
A Walrus and Carpenter oyster is plump and briny with a deep, round cup. It’s typically small, 2.5 to 3 inches, a size Patch prefers personally and one that Jules calls “not as intimidating.” “That’s the time in an
oyster’s life when it has the perfect balance of briny-ness and umami”—a savory, earthy flavor sometimes called “the fifth taste,” says Patch (after sweet, salty, sour, and bitter.)
Walrus and Carpenter Oysters is still a fledgling business. The farmer-friends hope to sell roughly 150,000 oysters in the next 12 months and grow from there. “Everything we’re doing now is kind of experimental,” says Jules, who recently left his job with the Nature Conservancy to work on the farm more or less full-time. (Patch still teaches math, now in Concord, Mass.) The farmers cultivate separate plots within their three- acre leasehold, then pool the oysters for sale under the same name. Says Jules, “That way we can do our own thing and remain friends.”
Initially focused on selling directly to the consumer, Walrus and Carpenter recently decided to offer their fish wholesale through the Ocean State Shellfish Growers Co-Op. Still, Patch and Opton-Himmel like selling direct to the people who will eat them, because it offers social satisfactions and greater profit potential. “I don’t think we would enjoy the business as much if we didn’t have that interaction with the consumer,” Patch says.
As with any business, operating an oyster farm isn’t just about oysters. Opton-Himmel and Patch have lots to do: repairing finicky outboard motors, navigating regulatory agencies, inspecting their crops for pests— and improvising designs for bamboo oyster suspension frames.
The latter task has proved harder than expected, because the bamboo’s natural buoyancy makes it hard to anchor. Patch isn’t too worried: “I’m sure there are uses we haven’t even come up with yet, there’s so much bamboo.”
One thing oyster farming hasn’t provided—and won’t, he says—is pearls: “They don’t grow in this type of oyster.” PROFILES