SAVANNAH, Ga. — Georgia’s oyster harvesting season ended last month and won’t start up again until the fall.
But some Georgia oystermen are still hard at work.
That’s because they’ve developed a new, more commercially-viable way of oyster-growing.
A businessman says it’s all in the way the oysters look.
Justin Manley’s commute takes him on a 20 minute boat ride.
Several times a week, he motors a path through the tidal creeks of Liberty County.
He’s winding his boat through miles of tall green marsh grass to get his oyster beds in waters leased from the state.
“You got St. Catherine’s Island to the south, Ossabaw to the north and the opening to the ocean straight in the middle,” Manley says.
Manley recently dove into the oyster business because of more than a decade of research at the University of Georgia.
The Michigan native worked at the UGA marine lab in Savannah where he learned about a new way of growing Georgia oysters so they can be sold individually instead of in bags by the bushel.
He owns one of three-new Georgia businesses growing oysters using the new method.
“For many years, the university and people in the industry were working really hard to figure out how to actually successfully cultivate single oysters,” Manley says. “And they were working and they were working.”
“And finally, all of a sudden, now there’s a solid method where you can actually do it successfully,” Manley says. “And now it’s like, bam, everybody wants to get into it now.”
I walked on the muddy banks of Manley’s wild oyster beds.
The razor-like creatures crunched under my feet.
Manley says that if you take young wild Georgia oysters, bag them and carefully tumble them in the tides, they won’t grow in bunches like most of the state’s oysters.
They won’t grow thin and gnarley like typical Georgia oyster, either.
They’ll grow individually, compact and rounded like the mostly Pacific varieties that restaurants serve on the half-shell.
“The amount of meat in that little tumbled oyster is almost identical to the meat that you’d get from one of these larger oysters,” Manley says. “So you’re still getting the same amount of meat, you’re just packing it into a smaller package that looks nicer.”
“So, I guess it’s packaging,” Manley says. “It’s not too different from Coke, Doritos or anything else.”
The method is conducted when the oysters are growing now in the summer.
Chefs will pay more for the more presentable oyster.
At Leoci’s Trattoria, a Savannah eatery run by a young, rising chef, a half-dozen cooks saute, sear and call their orders in a sweltering kitchen as dinner service is in full-swing.
Chef Roberto Leoci says the new farming method lets him sell Georgia-grown oysters that look like the kinds customers expect on a $16 plate.
“Like the West Coast oysters, like the kumamoto, they’re too small to cook with,” Leoci says. “His oysters, I’m able to add my own product to it to use it as a vehicle.”
Leoci uses Manley’s oysters, when they’re in season, both raw and in dishes like oysters carbonara and oysters Rockefeller.
Leoci pays a premium for the cultivated oysters.
UGA researcher Tom Bliss says growing individual oysters opens up a whole new market.
“We’re trying to help revive an industry and really give alternatives to our oystermen here,” Bliss says.
There are still challenges.
The new method is labor intensive and can’t produce the volume for large profits.
That might take a large investment.
But oyster-lovers can rejoice at more options.
Both the tumbled and wild Georgia oysters have a salty tang.
Justin Manley says he loves both kinds, gnarly wild ones and pretty farmed ones.
“Once you’re exposed, you’re either an oyster-eater or you’re not an oyster eater,” Manley says. “You have that small percentage that, no matter what you do, the idea of eating something alive grosses them out.”
And no amount of packaging can crack that oyster.