Who Is REALLY Farming Oysters In South Carolina?

 

An Open Letter To The Lowcountry,

Hi, my name is Malcolm and I am an oyster farmer in South Carolina. Yep, you read that right: Oyster. Farmer. I am one of themdun dun dunnnn!!!!

You may have heard about us in the news. Or maybe you read about us in a magazine. Or maybe you saw some crazy post on Facebook about how we are all out to get ya (spoiler: we are out to get ya…some super tasty little bi-valves).

No matter how you heard about us, I realized that we – as a brand spankin’ new industry – haven’t done a very good job of introducing ourselves. 

So who are these oyster farmers? Have they come to ransack our creeks or to save them? Are they big, giant companies or are they mom & pop shops? That’s what I’m going to shed a little light on today. So if you are ready, let’s meet the guys and gals that are really farming oysters in South Carolina.

Before we get going I want to make two quick notes:

Note #1: This is me, Malcolm Jenkins, speaking.

I’m not representing the rest of our tiny little industry, or even my business partner with this letter, although I’m pretty sure they all agree with me.

Note #2: This is only about who we are, not what we do

I could write a novel on the benefits of the mariculture industry as a whole from a sustainability aspect, from a tax dollar/job creation aspect, or even just from a “holy !#$@ that’s a delicious oyster” aspect but I’ll save those points for another time and place. This is about the farmers themselves, not the practice of raising them.

Okay, let’s meet those farmers…

Some hard-working S.O.B.’s

 

I’m not going to lie, as oyster farmers we haven’t done ourselves any favors in the naming department. Oyster. Farmer. Sounds icky doesn’t it?

For some reason when you hear those two words together your mind immediately associates them more closely with the likes of an organ farm stealing kidneys to resell on the black market than with the hard-working “Old MacDonald” type of farmer that this state and country were built by.

I probably can’t change the way those words feel rolling off your tongue. Even to me they still seem weird together. What I can tell you is that we have much more in common with that straw-hat wearing Mr. MacDonald than we do with a shady tilapia farm in middle-of-nowhere Thailand. So much more.

“Y’all work more in a day than most people do in a week!” – Our Landlord

That’s what our landlord told us a few weeks after we took over our farm down in the ACE Basin. I don’t know if that’s true but what I do know is this: that’s all we know how to do. We were raised that way and the nature of our work requires it.

We are usually at the Lowco Farm at least six days a week but most of the time it’s seven. The farm is an hour drive from town and we are usually there between 6:30 and 7:30 in the morning depending on the tides and sunrise. That means we are up at 5:00 am everyday, sometimes before that.

Quitting time comes early though right? Well, not really. If it’s summer we’ll regularly be out there until 7:30 or 8:00 pm. In the winter, we are almost always racing the sun back to the dock. On the rare occasion we get back to town before 5:00 pm it feels like we’ve been transported to an alien planet that looks a lot like Charleston but just doesn’t quite feel right.

If that sounds like a long day, well then you are right, it is. And the work ain’t easy either. Just like Old MacDonald pulling a plow, we are farming. Ask anyone who has come out to spend a day working with us. I don’t care how good of shape you are in, this work is tough. It’s hard on your back.

But I’m not here to tell fish tales about how hard the work is. I don’t mean to say that we work any harder than you. We might or we might not, it’s not a contest. What I am trying to say is that we are absolutely NOT taking any shortcuts to become some uber-rich bazillionaires and neither are any of our peers in the industry.

Speaking of which…

We are young…but not that young

 

There’s this weird stage in your life where a switch flips and you realize “I gotta do something that matters.” At least that’s how it happened for Trey and me, who both left successful careers to start something we believed so strongly in.

I’ve known Trey my whole life (literally) and even though I have extreme faith in our ability and will, I know that at twenty-three we would not have been prepared to do this the right way.

We are in our early 30’s now and we are trying to do something that matters with our lives. We are trying to build a legacy. And we aren’t alone. The handful of our peers that are slugging it out day after day on their own farms are all about our age. When you consider the fact that the average age of a farmer in South Carolina is about 60-years-old I like to think we are helping to save a dying way of life. Even if it doesn’t look exactly like you remember it fifty years ago. Millennials right!?!

 

We are small, local businesses NOT big out-of-state ones

 

I’ll address the local part first. Trey and I grew up in the Old Village in the late 80’s/early 90’s. We’ve seen the whole Charleston area grow just like you have. Hell, I’ve probably made more Ohio jokes in my lifetime than there were people in Mt. Pleasant when I went to my first oyster roast in 1991.

But are all of the oyster farmers “local”? It depends on how you define local I guess. Is Bill Murray a “local”? He was born in Illinois but people sure as hell like to claim him as a local.

And why not? He’s made Charleston his home spending much of the year here. He even owns several local businesses including the Riverdogs and our buddies over at Harold’s Cabin where the business plan for Lowco was literally drawn up on bar napkins.

Just like Bill, most of the other oyster farmers might not have been born and raised in the Lowcountry but after moving here for work or school and making it their home it’s just as much theirs as it is ours.

Alright, onto the “small” part. I get it, whenever you see something new and weird like oyster farming you just assume that it must be some big powerful company coming in to do whatever the hell they damn please. If you don’t understand it then it is probably Corporate America taking advantage of us again right? Definitely not in the case of SC oyster farmers.

The bulk of our peers are small partnerships. Startups. Many of us are working another job in addition to working those long hours I described above. We’ve got guys trying to support young families. Some of us are shucking oysters at night to put food on the table and pay all of the legal fees involved in actually getting a permit. We even have folks renting their houses out on Airbnb and sleeping on an unheated sailboat in the middle of winter just to make their small business work.

Do any of us have goals of building a successful company and growing our operations? You are damn right we do! It’s the American Dream is it not!?

Nobody got mad when Half Moon Outfitters, Wonder Works, or GDC Home opened a new store or added onto an existing one. Nope, instead the Charleston Community cheered them on because the little-small-businesses-that-could made something of themselves. Why shouldn’t we get the chance to do the same?

I’m going to leave you on that note. I hope I was able to put a face to this new scary thing called “oyster farming”. Please feel free to reach out to me directly at malcolm@lowcooysters.com with any and all questions. I promise I’ll do my best to answer them as quickly as I can.

Until next time I’ll be Rise’n and Brine’n down at the farm so we can share the best seafood in the world with Charleston locals and visitors alike.

Be easy,

Malcolm “Keeping the Dream Alive” Jenkins

 

 

P.S.

It would mean the world to me to get this out so we can sorta formally introduce ourselves as an industry of hard-working people trying to make a life. Giving this post a share on Facebook would be a huge help in that.

 

P.P.S

If this is your first time hearing about Lowco you can read our whole backstory here.