The Little Ram Oyster Co., a 2 million oyster farm on Long Island’s North Fork, started with Groupon.
To celebrate a friend’s birthday in the summer of 2017, Stefanie Bassett and Elizabeth Peeples joined eight other enthusiasts in Long Island City to learn how to shuck oysters at a discount. The Brooklyn couple, who knew each other from high school in Columbia, Md., have always loved the treat. But as they laughed with their friends and fumbled with their oyster knives, they also listened intently as the instructor explained the history and magic of shellfish.
“What caught our attention was the positive impact of oysters on the environment,” Ms Bassett, 42, said.
Among the best ocean filter feeders, one oyster cleans 50 gallons of water a day. New York was once known as the “Great Oyster,” but overharvesting and poor water quality wiped out the population by the 21st century. The couple learned of the effort to bring them back to port.
Faster than oysters can be shucked, Mrs. Bassett, then working in advertising, and Mrs. Peeples, then an interior designer, decided to become oyster farmers. “We said, ‘OK, let’s take five years,'” Ms. Bassett said, “save money, change our budget, change our lifestyle.”
They took research trips to the backwaters of Rhode Island, the only place where farmers answered their questions, and searched the Internet for “oyster farms for sale.” Then one day an ad popped up for a farm for sale in Gardiners Bay near the west coast of Shelter Island.
“The moment I landed on the North Fork, I was in love,” Ms. Bassett said. “It’s wine country and there are beaches. It’s the most amazing place ever.”
She spent a 72-degree day on flat water with the farm’s owner at the time.
A 15-minute boat ride from the village of Southold, it’s 10 square acres visible from the surface only thanks to the lines of swinging buoys marking the locations of the oyster cages.
It is immersed in the oyster farm community. Of the 79 oyster farming permits issued in New York so far in 2023, 39 are in Peconic and Gardiners Bays, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
“Gentlemen! These are good.”
It was the ultimate piece of real estate for Mrs. Bassett. She returned home to their Prospect Heights apartment at 1 a.m. with a bag full of produce.
“I get up Elizabeth and we’re eating oysters at one in the morning and we’re like, ‘Hey! Those are good,'” Ms. Bassett said.
Never mind that the couple had no experience with oyster farming or any type of farming. They never even steered a ship. With the positivity woven into both of their personalities, they negotiated with the owner to purchase his business and equipment by next week.
Farmers usually buy underwater land grants from former owners or local government. The land has a license to grow shellfish.
The submerged area below Little Ram was acquired in 2012 as part of the Suffolk County Shellfish Aquaculture Lease Program. The 2009 initiative aimed to boost the local economy by offering 10-year renewable leases on 10-acre lots to shellfish farmers in Peconic and Gardiners bays. As of this month, 36 leases are in effect, totaling 590 acres, according to county officials.
Ms. Bassett and Ms. Peeples were purchasing a business that included the Eastern 22′ Lobster workboat, commercial refrigeration equipment, cages, buoys and 150,000 oysters.
The sale also came with the rights to the official name, Cornelius & Little Ram Oyster Company LLC The farm is named for its location, as is tradition with oyster companies, the farm is visible from Shelter Island, located between Cornelius Point and Little Ram Island.
Permits from the US Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers, along with the lease, also had to be transferred to Mrs. Bassett and Mrs. Peeples.
After some negotiation, they agreed to pay $117,000 for the store. With a recent kitchen and bathroom renovation in their Brooklyn apartment eating into their savings, they needed a loan.
The problem was that the financial and legal professionals they approached couldn’t find any comparable oyster sales, so they looked to commercial fishing and the agricultural industry. “No one knew how to deal with it. The insurance companies didn’t know. The lawyers didn’t know that,” Ms Bassett said.
In September 2018, they took out a $130,000 small business loan from Bridgehampton National Bank, now Dime Community Bank, to have extra money as a backup, and within the next two months, the couple sold their two-bedroom co-op and moved to Southold. take over the leasing and oyster business. Ms. Peeples left interior design behind, and Ms. Bassett spent the first nine months commuting two hours to her advertising job in the city on weekdays while tending to the new business on weekends.
Fish out of water
Then they needed to learn how to manage oysters – with the purchase of the farm they received weekly basic operating instructions.
Miss Bassett and Mrs. Peeples arrived on the first day ready to get their hands wet. Thinking they should look the part, they sported Grundéns industry-approved sports coats and bibs.
“We wore them wrong,” admitted Mrs. Bassett, laughing at their naivety. Fishing coats are not meant to be tucked into bibs, as they learned when their trousers filled with water on a rainy day.
It also had a learning curve when it came to steering and docking the boat.
“Thankfully it was cold and no one else was around because it was just crash, crash, crash,” Ms. Bassett recalled of their first few attempts.
As any sailor knows, the ocean will not wait for a novice to find his bearings.
“We’re dealing with Mother Nature, too,” said Ms. Peeples, 42. The gentler she spoke about the two, she inserted herself between Ms. Bassett’s jokes. “When the winds are from the west, it is very favorable; from the east, we will get hit,” she said.
Some days on the ship are beautiful, but others are choppy and cold, and farmers are stung by spray as they rush to fill orders. And oysters take time, one shell at a time.
Each one is processed over and over again through cultivation, and some Long Island farms have as many as 10 million, said Rob Carpenter, director of the Long Island Farm Bureau.
Some oyster farmers breed their oysters, but others buy them as juveniles or as “seed”. At Eros Cultured Oyster Company in Southold, the hatchery where Ms. Peeples and Ms. Bassett buy their seed, hatchlings cost $13 to $46 per $1,000. The price depends on how big they are, which indicates their maturity and likelihood of survival after purchase, said Karen Rivara, who owns the hatchery.
Babies are kept in square silos to keep them safe from clams, oyster drills and other predators. They are repeatedly sorted, either manually or with an electronic sorter.
After the oysters are harvested, they are rolled in an aluminum barrel called a tumbler, which breaks off the sharp edges and encourages the oysters to stick to the inside of their shells, creating a deeper cup and heartier meat.
“It’s very labor intensive.” People don’t realize that,” Mr. Carpenter said.
Mrs Bassett recalled a particularly difficult day in August 2019 after her wife left to give birth to their son Finn. It took all day to lift one cage over the ship’s fiberglass hull. It was loaded with seaweed and so heavy that the electronic transporter beeped and quit in protest, leaving her to bring it in by hand.
“We called them the Muppets,” she said of the cages at the time. “They were wearing seaweed and stuff and they were giant and crazy.
“Tastes like a vacation”
Now pros, Ms. Peeples and Ms. Bassett proudly boast that they each shucked 150 oysters in half an hour, a long way from the Groupon class. They are also now experienced yachtsmen and name their vessel ‘LALU’, short for ‘love and like you’, a household phrase in Mrs Bassett’s family. It was also the theme of their May 2017 wedding, a weekend affair in Chestertown, near the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. They served oysters as an appetizer.
“Stef and I have the best partnership in our life and our business,” Ms. Peeples said. The couple now owns a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath salt house with a heated inground saltwater pool, just off the beach. “We’ve never worked harder or been dirtier, but at the end of the day we couldn’t be happier.”
One day in early spring, Mrs. Bassett arranged them in a decorative circle over the ice on a round tray. Their inner walls are immaculate, their taste salty from their resting place on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
“Ours are popular because they’re very white,” she said, adding that “it tastes like a vacation,” is their new slogan.
“Tastes like a vacation,” Mrs. Peeples said. “They’re really clean and crisp from the high current, with a sweet, smooth finish.”
When they first took over the farm, some of the oysters were a foot long. These were ideal at the time for the Grand Central Oyster Bar on East 42nd Street, which served oversized oysters cut with a knife and fork like a steak, and in August 2019 he placed his first restaurant order for them.
As their business grew, they took on distinct roles: Mrs. Bassett became the captain and directs all work on the ship. Mrs. Peeples is the head of operations and land farm, so she is readily available to Finn, who is now 3.
They also went from a two-woman operation to a five-woman business with one more man, Rob Ewing, who also owns the Finest Tide Shellfish delivery service and now delivers oysters to restaurants in the city of Rozbřesk.
Little Rams are now in 15 to 20 restaurants on the North Fork and in Manhattan. To the east, that includes North Fork Table & Inn and François Payard’s Southold Social on the North Fork. They’re on the menu at Cull & Pistol in Chelsea Market and at chef John Fraser’s three Michelin-starred New York restaurants, including Iris, which serves Mediterranean cuisine in Midtown.
Among their other ventures, the couple hosts a Wednesday happy hour at a food truck owned by the Shoals, a hotel next to their property in Southold. They sell their oysters at festivals and at a local farm stand, and in the summer they host farm boat tours.
They are installing an oyster vending machine in front of the warehouse to sell boxes of Little Rams and hauling equipment and plan to bottle their homemade oyster sauce. At first, the old salt in the bay was skeptical of the new competition. It’s not every day that a couple shows up from Brooklyn and elbows people who grew up in pincers. Most oyster farmers had their first careers as sailors, not as advertisers and interior designers.
“They had a different mindset where you have to be able to sell the product in a more creative way,” said Ms. Rivara, 64, who owns a hatchery and is a 40-year veteran of shellfish farming. “They have different skills for selling things. I never went to school for sales and marketing.”
Ms. Bassett and Ms. Peeples know how to brand themselves, appearing in Vogue and other glossy publications, but many longtime oyster farmers, including Ms. Rivara, said they appreciated their wit.
They are also more involved in the local maritime community. They joined the Long Island Oyster Growers Association, where Ms. Bassett helps with public relations and marketing. In November 2021, Ms. Peeples was elected Southold Town Administrator, a position that helps oversee activities in the town’s underwater land and within 100 feet of its shoreline.
Phil Mastrangelo, 57, part owner of Oysterponds Shellfish Company in Orient, one of Long Island’s largest farms with 10 million oysters, said the wife-wife team’s marketing has benefited others. “The New York oyster was once the No. 1 oyster in the world, and it’s good for them to be promoting the region again,” he said. “It helps us all.