Shucked: Life on the (oyster) farm

December 16, 2011, 10:53 PM UTC

Our Weekly Read column features Fortune staffers’ and contributors’ takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We’ve invited the entire Fortune family — from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers — to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities. This week, Lawrence A. Armour takes a look at Erin Byers Murray’s Shucked: Life on a New England Oyster Farm.

FORTUNE — In March 2009, a bright, seemingly rational 31-year-old traded in her laptop and lavish lifestyle for 18 months of planting, nurturing, and harvesting oysters in the wet and usually frigid waters off Duxbury, Mass.

Back then, Erin Byers Murray was the Boston editor for, a job that provided more than enough reasons “to dress up and socialize at store openings, restaurant fetes, fashion shows and lunches.” Her goal: finding “trendy ideas to drop into the in-boxes of well-off female readers.”

Murray decided she wanted out of all this the day a flat-bottomed boat ferried her around the 50 acres of Duxbury Bay that a small business named Island Creek Oysters leased from the state. She met and talked with the farmers — young men and women who were plucking oysters out of the mud. She liked what she saw and heard. She was overwhelmed by the intensity with which they approached their jobs and was struck by three other things: First, that she had no idea where the food she wrote about came from; second, that the young men and women in the bay were doing something real; and third, that she wanted to spend a year as an oyster farmer.

The people at Island Creek thought about it for a week or so, came back with a yes, and Murray was off and running. And so begins Shucked, a rollicking, highly entertaining and emotionally satisfying tale of what turned out to be the 18 months Murray spent as member of the crew at Island Creek Oysters.

Her first day on the job brought a taste of what was to come: rain, hard work and more. “The saltwater air hit me hard and fast, she reports. “It was refreshing — and shockingly cold.” As the book spells out, that day was spent culling, which involved sorting piles of smelly, dirty oysters into new piles that determined where they’ll wind up. Three-inchers with nice shells and deep, rounded bottoms went to upscale New York City restaurants like Le Bernardin, Craft, and Per Se. Smaller ones went elsewhere. Those with cracked shells were tossed back into the mud, where they’d repair themselves and be ready for another go in a few months.

The book is filled with wonderful anecdotes that provide behind-the-scenes looks at what oyster farming is all about. For example, on her second day on the job, Murray joined the crew “on the tide” — a 10-foot drop in the water level that occurs every new and full moon, revealing the naturally occurring mud flats where oysters are planted and grown. Most days, harvesting involves huge rakes and nets. But when the tide is out, the crew is able to harvest by hand, a slow but exacting process that means returning to shore with only perfectly sized oysters.

Murray goes into great detail describing how hard the work can be. “My muscles screamed,” she writes. “I was a wreck from all the standing, lifting, and constant motion.” Up at dawn and in bed by 8 or 9 P.M., Murray had little time at the start for more than oysters and tide charts. The winter’s snow and ice brought new challenges. “Even though I wore long johns, heavy jeans, rubber waders and about eight layers of shirts,” she tells us, “the frozen air ripped through me like paper.”

Eventually, though, the author gets used to it, and when she does, her learning curve takes off. In addition to learning how to cull, plant, harvest, and the like, she discovers that an oyster’s flavor comes from the neighborhood in which it grew up. She learns that oysters are sequentially hermaphroditic, which means they become male or female based on the needs of their particular environment.

She learns that each oyster filters up to 40 gallons of water a day, helping the environment by removing nitrogen, carbon, and other gases that come from the runoff from fertilizers and man-made chemicals. She learns all about upwellers, the mammoth boxes and troughs that are slid into the water at the start of every summer, holding the rectangular frames where tiny oyster seeds, the size of pepper flakes, are natured through their early going.

Murray becomes a “seed girl,” and before long takes charge of the care and feeding of the millions of oyster seeds Island Creek received and planted during her time at the farm. She also spends time in the back office, where she learns that running an oyster farm also involves things like selling, shipping, and customer service. She participates in oysterfests throughout New England and helps carry the Island Creek name to restaurants in Boston, New York, Miami, and Chicago.

Along the way, Murray eats a lot of oysters and gains lots of insight into how they make it from farm to table. She meets some wonderful people who are passionate about what they do and how they do it. One of the highlights of her 18 months: the day she comes ashore and works with the chefs in the kitchen at Per Se.

Murray also does a wonderful job describing the fringe benefits of oyster farming — the camaraderie that goes with the job and the beauty and romance that come from being part of the sand and surf. Shucked is a great read.

–Lawrence A. Armour is deputy editor of custom content for Time, Fortune, Money and Sports Illustrated.

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