Ninigret Nectars are a constant on the Oyster Club raw bar menu. We love them for their characteristically deep cup and sweet flavor. We spent a day on the water with Matt Behan, owner of Behan Family Farms, to learn more about how he sets himself apart in the oyster farming industry.
We met on a bitter November day on Ninigret Pond. Matt Behan and his employee, Mike, were pulling on their gear as we arrived; wetsuits, hats, gloves, and waders. Matt stands six feet tall, his face obscured by polarized lenses and an impressive beard. He offered us a set of waders and ushered us to the dock. It was early, and quiet, save for the roaring Atlantic wind, the chugging of the motor, and the water lapping against the boat. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew nothing of how oysters lived, how they grew, or how they get from the ocean to the plate. I was excited. Local photographer, Amma, and I sat on the cold metal bow of the dinghy. She adjusted her camera settings as we motored away from land. The pond was untouched, perfect and tranquil. No docks, no pilings, no machines. A few hundred yards out, Matt pulled up to a small flat barge and cut the motor. “Here we are!” he smiled. Barely visible beneath the choppy reflection of the gray autumn sky was Behan Family Farms.
The first time I met Matt, he was shucking oysters in a dress shirt. He stood, tanned and laughing, behind a table covered in crushed ice and lemon wedges at a mutual friend’s engagement party, a service that he gifts to many of his friends for special occasions. Matt is the boy next door, Rhode Island-style; generous and amiable, with saltwater in his veins and a daring sense of adventure. He started working at Watch Hill Oyster Farm when he was 15 years old. He loved the hard work, and spending his days on the water. He was hooked. He graduated from Chariho High School, and University of Rhode Island, and by the time he was 25, Matt owned his own oyster farm.
Matt helped us off the barge and into the pond. Our rubber waders shrunk tight and cold around our legs as we plodded over to the first in a line of cages submerged a few feet beneath the surface. Matt and Mike pulled the cage from the shallow water to reveal several hundred greenish brown ovals sloshing around amongst ribbons of seaweed and juvenile crabs.
Matt gave us a brief history of the life of an oyster. They swim freely as larvae for a brief period before seeking a suitable place to attach and live. Their growth can be tracked like you would a tree, by counting the rings on their shells. They act as natural water filters. Nitrogen is released into bodies of water, and where there's nitrogen, there's algae. Algae blooms, and dies, and when it decomposes, it depletes oxygen from seawater. Oysters consume algae, allowing more sunlight to penetrate the water column, preserving oxygen, and providing invaluable benefits to other marine life. A single adult oyster can clean up to 50 gallons of water per day, imagine what six farms worth of oysters have done for Ninigret Pond. I looked down at my oversized neoprene boots, the water was crystal clear.
Oyster farming in Rhode Island is still fairly small, but the growth of the industry over all is staggering. The demand is huge. For Matt, the stakes are higher every year. He plants more oysters to meet the demand, but the risks are constant. “It’s been a rollercoaster ride since day one, and this year really caught me off guard,” Matt sighed. “In our fourth year, things really started picking up. We were hitting goals, catching up to more established farms. Our yield kept multiplying. We started planting more. Then, out of no where, water temperatures went through the roof. Way too much sun, not enough cloud cover. We sold under half of what we planted. It knocked the wind out of us, but we learned a lot.”
Oyster farmers face challenges like smothering algae bloom, ravenous blue crabs, aggressive disease, unpredictable weather, and rising water temperatures. Not only that, but there are now five other farms to compete with on Ninigret Pond alone. “The hydrodynamics here aren’t great. We have a seven inch tide, which means there isn’t much exchange with the ocean, so we’re starting to compete slightly for food,” Matt warns. However, there is a sustained sense of community amongst the farmers, he says, “I’ll see one of the other farmers and let them know I just picked up a new restaurant, here’s the chef’s number, give him a shout, you can probably get on the menu too, and vice versa. The industry is wide open, there’s so much demand.”
Not every oyster is the same, and the demand for variety promises a degree of security. Matt has found a way to manipulate his oysters growth to achieve a specific result, to build his personal, boutique oyster brand, “Ninigret Nectars.” “The only complaint I’ve heard are that my oysters can be too small. I cultivate my oysters to be smaller intentionally, with a deeper cup. I mean, you don’t order a large caviar grinder…you get a little dollop,” he explains. At this point I understand that this hulking, burly fisherman truly respects the decadence of an oyster. Some oysters grow rapidly, sacrificing depth and mass for outward growth. They may grow as big as your hand, but the shell becomes brittle, and the meat is thin. Matt favors consistency over yield, taking the time to ensure that each of his oysters are a carbon copy of the next. "You always know what you're getting when you open a Ninigret Nectar," he says.
Behan Family Farms is a relatively small shop. Matt doesn’t use as much mechanized technology as some of the farms on the pond, but he does tumble his oysters often, sending them through a rotating machine to trim the fragile edges of their shells. This encourages the oyster to grow down, rather than out, much like trimming the tops of your basil plant so that it grows fuller, rather than taller. This method ensures the characteristically plump, compact quality of his Ninigret Nectars. It takes time, and practice, and patience.
Matt gestures across the pond to his generations of oyster crops, some barely beyond seed, some market ready, some “throw backs” that need another season to mature. I realize that freshness, the paramount quality we hope for in an oyster, doesn’t necessarily mean what we think it does. Oysters can lay growing on the ocean floor for up to five years. The oyster on your plate is often at least two years old. One thing that Matt promises is that his oysters are generally less than two hours out of the water, and they never travel beyond 50 miles from where they were grown. “Our yield is small, but we sell directly to restaurants. Some guys sell to a distributor, and their oysters end up in D.C., New York, Boston. I don’t have the oyster population to support that distance, and I’m okay with that.”
I asked Matt why small-scale oyster farming is important to him. He rattles off a quick list of reasons, the joys of the job at the forefront of his mind; the science; the process of growing something; overcoming the challenges; the positive contribution to the environment, and the sense of community. He softens as he continues with a word about family, and the privilege of being part of the farm to table movement. “I grew up here. My dad is my delivery driver. I have friends and family here, and now I'm part of the Oyster Club family. We put so much hard work into growing these oysters, and we put just as much thought into where they go after harvest. I want them to end up somewhere that puts as much thought into the process and the product as we do. Oyster Club does that.”
Matt and Mike pulled a bag of oysters up onto the boat. Matt offered us a fresh Ninigret Nectar, cool and briny, resting in its perfect white shell. We lean against the center console, faces to the sun, listening to the clatter of oyster shells on the sorting table. Oyster farming is hard solitary work, but it’s clear that Matt wouldn’t have it any other way. Though at times isolated, he feels connected to something bigger. Farming offers Matt a sense of peace and purpose, it grounds him. “At the end of the day, you throw all your hopes and dreams into a basket, your savings, your 401K, your charts and extrapolations, and you throw it into the ocean. Then you just hope for the best,” he laughed, “that's all you can do, is hope for the best.”
Written by Catherine Dzilenski.
Photos by Amma Rhea Pozzi of Amma Rhea Photography.