Edible Magazine by Carrington Morris
Off the coast of Connecticut, the next generation is revitalizing a historic sustainable oyster farm.
An hour's train ride from Grand Central on Metro North lies a diminutive island in the middle of a pond. A five-minute taxi ride from the Westport station to the harbor, and the scenery takes a notable shift; you know you're now in New England. The salt air, the colonial houses, even the sense of time seems to change. Welcome to Sherwood Mill Pond. Your destination? Hummock Island.
A historic wooden "sharpie" greets you at the dock. It's a picturesque New England oyster boat whose rustic simplicity beckons you on board. In the near distance you can see a small island's house. That's where you're going to feast on oysters and learn about oystering.
It's the brainchild of Jeffrey Northrop Jr. The family-owned oyster farm has been been with his kin for generations, but this iteration is all his.
Growing boutique oysters since 2014, the operation has 15 million of them in the water. But you wouldn't suspect that level of industry by looking at it. It's a peaceful, quiet small bay that seems sheltered from the onslaughts of modernity. Nary a motor boat but one operates in these still waters. That's the one taking you to the island.
Once you land you're seated in Adirondack chairs, where Captain Jeff Northrop Sr. treats you to the story of the island, the operation and how the beloved oyster lands on your plate.
Not to give it all away, but it goes something like this. Back in the Revolutionary era, English royalty were wont to reward loyalists, and thus in 1741, the deed to Sherwood Mill Pond landed in the Northrop ancestors' lap. As fate would have it, the family had revolutionaries in it as well, and when the motherland lost its American reign, the deed smoothly passed over to the rebel kin. Taxed with representation in the modern era, the family bequeathed much of the land to the State of Connecticut under the condition that it remain undeveloped, thus ensuring the pond's continued glory. Nota bene, in addition to the island, the Northrop family stayed owners of the pond's sea floor, though it remained unused for generations. Until now.
Northrop Jr. graduated from Columbia in 2009 and went on to work for a hedge fund. Not one to overlook an asset, upon graduating, his mind started working on how he might activate this principle. Though a fertile oyster habitat, the oyster farm had laid dormant for 80 to 100 years, says Northrop. His brain lit up with possibilities; in his words it was a "perfect storm of conditions to grow these oysters, mitigate risk and protect the growing area." But first, research.
He read everything he could get his hands on about oysters and oyster production. Then he visited Kim Tetrault at the Cornell Cooperative Extension SPAT program on Long Island's North Fork. He shadowed Tetrault for half the day and took his words of counsel to heart, that: "This is farming. It's a lot of trial and error. Things constantly need fixing. This is not a setit-and-forget-it business model. This is farming." He researched domestic operations and then he researched abroad.”
France and Australia were key in understanding that we were way behind as a country. The cutting edge was Australia. They still are," says Northrop. And that's largely the operation he's looking to emulate. While Hummock Island is currently a hybrid of traditional and modern oystering techniques, his aim is to lead the way for modern, sustainable oyster farming in the States.
He raised seed funding for the 2014 launch via venture capitalists and family offices, emphasizing the popularity of sustainable shellfish farming and the low risk due to said perfect storm of: already owning the property, which can never be developed, a property that's demonstrably a thriving breeding ground for the product, with the right water salinity, an abundance of nutrient-rich plankton and high velocity water flow. Plus, the pond's shallowness made for ease of crop accessibility.
Seed funding led to seed buying, and a boutique sustainable oyster farm was born, the success of the output apparent by a quick look at their clientele. Claus Meyer has paid the island a visit and featured the shellfish at Agern. As has the team from Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Further afield Hummock Island oysters grace the plates at the Ritz-Carlton as far away as Puerto Rico.
In addition to bringing his entrepreneurial skills to revitalize the family business, Northrop takes great pride in the sustainability aspect of the farm. "As oyster growers, we're stewards of the ecosystem. Oysters have a negative carbon footprint," he says, referring to the fact that each oyster big and small acts as a water purifier, each filtering 50 gallons of water a day, according to Northrop Sr.
Northrop Jr. shies away from the phrase "ecotourism" but can find no way around it as he speaks to the current zeitgeist, where food lovers want to know where their food is coming from and that it's first doing no harm. Especially when fish farming has such a mixed reputation, he's eager to explain that shellfish farming is of a whole other order. One without doubts.
But fear not that the trip to Hummock Island is limited to oyster stories; next on the agenda is shucking and slurping. This is the highlight of the tour, as you proceed from the house's porch past the firepit to the adjoining houseboat's historic tasting room or "Oysterplex." If you don't know how to shuck an oyster, Hummock Island is where to go to learn. Seasoned shuckers can dig in. Northrop insists that the shucking experience has been a hit for oyster lovers and decliners alike. In fact, he says most tourgoers need to be persuaded off the island when time is up. "We have to drag people off the island every time," he says. "Nobody ever wants to leave.”
While they don't currently have a liquor license, BYOB is strongly encouraged as is BYO picnic. The venue is also in demand for private events, like birthdays, company parties and team building. The local historic society paid a recent visit and one couple even tied the knot there. Northrop can't identify who the perfect audience is for the tour, it's so broad, though it's highly popular with grown kids coming back to visit their parents, couples, chefs and local clubs.
It's a dream destination for which Northrop has big ideas for the future. His entrepreneurial mind is working to hatch plans of continued technological advances for the operation, expanding from 15 million to reach the pond's capability of 50 million or even 100 million. An expansion he hopes his next A-level funding will support.
And more visions abound. "Bigger picture is an investment fund with a focus on sustainable shellfish aquaculture," says Northrop, referring to the current operation as "a stepping stone and proof of concept for a $150 million fund that only invests in shellfish." Northrop hopes one day to partner with struggling mom-and-pop operations, providing them with a leg up on funding and modernizing, to help make their businesses succeed in the 21st century. Also he imagines bringing aquaculture to areas of the world that are without. "As long as you have good water quality, you can grow oysters anywhere with the right season," he enthuses.
In the meantime, the adventure is within reach and yours for the exploring.