It’s difficult to think of something more quintessentially Martha’s Vineyard than eating fresh, locally grown oysters in a waterside restaurant or as part of a clambake on the beach.
But husband and wife Ryan and Julia Smith of Signature Oyster Farm in Katama Bay are taking that experience to the next level with their oyster tours, which give folks a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to head out on a pontoon boat and learn all about how the salty delights are grown and harvested.
The Smiths told Vineyard Visitor they want to provide a unique and memorable time out on the water by pairing a dining and sampling experience with an educational run-through of how the two earn their living.
“The tours are about an hour and a half. We pick you up at Katama Landing, we bring you out to the oyster barge, and you experience how we grow the oysters from babies to adult sizes of three inches,” Julia said. “You sit on the oyster barge in the middle of the ocean, and eat fresh oysters right out of the water — it doesn’t get more close-up than that.”
Once COVID hit, the oyster farmers were looking for a way to bolster their revenue, with many restaurants and private caterers largely shuttering their operations due to health restrictions.
Julia said the team decided on the tours because they’re outdoors, they’re personalized, and they also act as hands-on learning experiences.
How the oysters are grown, harvested, cleaned, and sent out to hungry folks’’ plates, Julia said, is a process that not many people know about.
“The tour is really learning what we do, how we do it, and experiencing a really unique thing where you are out in the middle of Katama Bay, eating oysters that were harvested right where you’re sitting. It’s definitely a special occasion,” she said.
Julia added that Signature Oyster Farm has given tours for all sorts of occasions, and each trip is special because the groups are not mixed — meaning one group would consist of all family members, friends, or members of a honeymoon or wedding party — instead of having random groups intermingling.
Folks can bring their own drinks to accompany the oysters (and their own food, if a member of their party isn’t particularly fond of oysters).
One interesting point that Julia tries to impart during the tours is how beneficial oysters are for the environment, and for the bodies of water they are grown in.
“What we do here is all about sustainable food and a sustainable living, but it has also created such an incredible ecosystem for the waters out here,” she said.
As the oyster cages sit atop the mucky bottom of the bay, small fish and other marine life gather around them, which in turn attract larger fish, creating a dynamic environment for a variety of species.
She added that oysters can filter up to 59 gallons of water a day, which can provide immense benefits to the surrounding marine flora and fauna. And with antioxidants, zinc, and plenty of protein, oysters are just as good for our bodies as they are for the water bodies they are grown in.
“The entire tour is meant to give you a more in-depth appreciation for oysters, so that when you do go to a restaurant, you know how much time and hard work went into that oyster you’re eating,” Julia said.
After growing up in a commercial fishing household all his life, Ryan always knew he wanted to work on the water in some way, shape or form — but it wasn’t until recently that he saw that dream realized in the oval and pear-shaped bivalves that have become his passion and livelihood.
Looking out from the oyster barge, a vast field of white buoys spans the Signature Oyster Farm plot. Each buoy indicates a cage sitting on the bottom filled with oysters of various sizes.
Each day, the oyster farmers use a winch on their pontoon boat to lift the heavy cages onto the oyster barge, where they clean them and pull out any that have reached adult size.
The grown-up oysters are placed into what looks like an oversized rock tumbler that sits in the water (handmade by Ryan) and churns the shells until all the mud and debris comes off, and at that point the oyster is ready for slurping. The tumbling process also breaks off the sharp edges of the oyster, making it more pleasant to shuck and eat.
“That’s why chefs love tumbled oysters. Some people might have to pressure wash them — we don’t have to with this thing,” Ryan said. Apart from the unique process of cleaning the oysters, the distinctive taste that Ryan describes as “a salt bomb, with a sweet-as-candy finish” is a tell-tale sign you are enjoying a Signature Oyster.
According to Ryan, once the oysters are tumbled, they are placed in mesh bags which are left in the water until it’s time to head back to the landing and refrigerate the day’s catch in their cooler truck.
Before COVID hit, Ryan said the oyster game was booming, and he and his team were working around the clock to provide the fresh oysters to restaurants, caterers, and private buyers.
“We were selling between 30,000 and 40,000 oysters a week. We even had a week where we sold over 80,000 oysters. We were out here probably sixteen hours a day for three days straight,” Smith said.
But when restaurants closed and big summer events were cancelled, Ryan and Julia knew they would have to make some supplemental income.
Signature Oysters partnered with the Winnetu and began offering oyster tour excursions.
“We handed out brochures and everything. Those tours were so popular there that we thought we would build another boat, and do the tours on our own,” Ryan said.
With that, the couple updated their website, refined their public outreach, and created arguably one of the most unique Island experiences, for both visitors and locals alike.
Signature Oyster Farm already has around 20 tours booked for this summer, “and it hasn’t even ramped up yet,” Ryan said.
“People are slowly going to start getting the word, and soon it’s going to be known as one of the coolest things to do on the Island,” he said.
Learn more or book a tour at signatureoysterfarm.com.