The Big O: Oyster Farming Hits Southern Waters

“The time has come… to talk of many things:”

Actually, let’s just skip all that stuff about shoes and ships and sealing wax and cut right to the chase. This story is about Crassostrea virginica. That’s right—we’re talkin’ oysters. Or more specifically, oyster farming. Yep, it’s not just for livestock anymore.

“We’ve been out on this river our whole lives.”

Andrew and Austin Harter know a little about the subject. Although they hail from Orangeburg, South Carolina—a two-hour drive, give or take, down the familiar I-95 South corridor—this stretch of coastline has become something of a second home for the brothers. In fact, a majority of the Harter family vacations were spent right here on the May River, a swath of salty, opaque water that carves its pronged path through historic Bluffton. It was also here that the boys learned to navigate the river’s many narrow channels, predict the shifting tides, and of course, pick oysters. So, what are two guys to do, with a wealth of saltwater knowledge under their belt and a trained pair of sealegs? Well. They’re not going to start hosting Avon parties. 

“We’ve been out on this river our whole lives,” says Andrew. He’s behind the wheel of the Harter’s May River Oyster Company boat, instinctively steering around the marshy grasses on a hot June afternoon.

He detours here and there, pointing out a few of the area’s more wild habitants going about their day on the water, the iconic Harbour Town Lighthouse rising up in the distance. “Now, we’re doing something that we love, and also helping to keep the natural population from being depleted again in the future.”

Our oysters have been a longtime favorite for locals and visitors alike, and it’s not hard to see why. Oysters, Austin explains, are sensitive, “site-specific” creatures, often bending to the whims of Mother Nature and molding their flavor profile based on the elements of their surroundings. That salty, briny punch you taste every time you shuck and slurp down a local mollusk? Thank our brackish seawaters. But while traditional wild oyster beds—the ones you spot jutting out from the pluff mud during low tide—are tightly packed, forcing the shellfish to grow upwards in a battle for food and sunlight, these babies are given all the lounging room they need.

“We want to keep growing, keep giving people the local oysters they love while protecting our waters. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

“We like to let our oysters really ‘spread their wings,’” he explains. “Basically, instead of having to all grow in one direction, they can go 360 degrees. People want that deep, round cup shape, they want that good meat in a hard shell that won’t go to mush when they shuck it. That’s what you get with our May River Cups.”

Admittedly, the brothers killed a lot of oysters on the first go-round in 2015 (Austin ballparks around a couple hundred thousand sacrificed so far), but now in their second season, they seem to have perfected the formula. The May River Oyster Company has some 50 traps dropped down in their namesake waters as well as the surrounding Cooper River and Bull Creek, distinctly designated by a series of brightly colored buoys bobbing in the current. Off-season, the Harters spend anywhere from five to six hours a day cranking up cages, splitting, sifting and shifting larger oysters around to allow the smaller ones to flourish.

But when the fall hits and it’s time to start filling orders for local restaurants on Palmetto Bluff and Savannah’s own dockside bar, The Wyld, don’t be surprised if the pair is out harvesting before dawn and back after dusk. It’s no glamorous affair, what with the bottom of their flat-bottomed vessel caked with dried pluff and crawling with a few hangers-on crabs lifted from the river floor. Two pairs of white rubber boots—at least they used to be white—are propped upside down near the boat’s rim, at the ready for the times they jump ship to collect a few wild oysters from the marsh. No, it’s not fancy. But it is a true testament to the Harters’ dedication to their craft, the chance to preserve one of the South’s most beloved and traditional seafood delicacies. And besides, they’re springing for a new rig soon.

“It used to be that an oyster was an oyster,” Andrew says. “Now, people are becoming more interested in oysters. They want to know where their food comes from, why it tastes this way or that way. We want to keep growing, keep giving people the local oysters they love while protecting our waters. It’s a win-win for everyone.” 

To learn more about the South's best oysterssubscribe now or pick up the August/September issue of South magazine.