Hog Island Oyster Co: Stewards of the Land and Water

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Hog Island Oyster Co: Stewards of the Land and Water

Article and Photo by Rachel LaFranchi

Published February 1, 2017

Kim Vail
Terry Sawyer, a co-owner of Hog Island Oyster Farm.

As the one who “went to the water”, Terry Sawyer describes himself as the black sheep of his family. Sawyer came from a family with farmers on both sides, and his family still owns a ranch in the valley.

Sawyer, a co-owner of Hog Island Oyster Co., describes the difference between aquaculture and agriculture as a very fine line. Sawyer, who also sits on the board of the Marin RCD, said he plays a role in the community communicating the parallels between agriculture and aquaculture.

Located in Marshall, CA, Sawyer and his partner John Finger have built the business from a five acre, three person business in Tomales Bay to a company with more than 300 employees around the Bay Area. The business had three founders; however, Mike Watchorn is no longer with the company.

Sawyer and his partners were all marine biologists passionate about what goes on in the water. “We were always wet and we all like to eat. At some point that intersection occurred where we all became friends and got together and our energies were able to be synchronized.”

Sawyer was working at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Finger and Watchorn were working for a shellfish operation in Moss Landing. With shared interests, their pathways led the three friends to want to work together.

With very little money, most of which was loans from their parents, and a lot of patience from their families, the three began farming oysters, mussels and clams in the Tomales Bay.

That was 1983, and they they were the only ones working for the buisness. Thirty four years later, they have 160 employees working from their Tomales Bay location and 140 more in other locations. They have two restaurants, one in Napa and another in San Francisco.

In their continuing quest to expand, Hog Island Oyster Co is building their own hatchery in the Humboldt Bay and looking to lease an additional 60-65 acres near there.
Sawyer said their decision to open their own hatchery was due to oyster seed (baby oysters about two millimeters in length) supply problems. Their business is dependent on hatcheries up and down the West Coast and Hawaii, and they began running into supply problems 12-15 years ago. Saywer attributes some of the supply problem to climate change, saying it’s more noticeable below the surface and the oyster hatcheries have been seeing high mortality rates.

Many of the hatcheries supply to their own farms, and when they have mortalities, they supply their own farms before other customers. Opening their own hatchery will help Hog Island vertically integrate their business as well as diversify.

Hog Island Oyster Co has been working on their Humboldt hatchery for more than three years.

“It’s not something you go into like, let’s just do that. It’s a very challenging project,” said Sawyer.

They’re planning on opening the facility this spring, and they will purchase larvae to start their hatchery. They will “set” the oysters making sure they go in single instead of settling on each other, how they naturally prefer to set.

The oysters are fed specific varieties of phytoplankton. Sawyer said the entire process is very controlled and the industry faces a lot of bio security issues.

They grow the seed to a size that will fit their current operations. The seeds are then placed into a FLUPSY (floating upwelling system). A FLUPSY is a raft system that will hold high numbers of very small animals. They aim to keep similar sizes together which involves a lot of specialized handling and equipment – Sawyer said the process is very efficient.

What is produced in the FLUPYS is transported to the oyster farm where they’ll be grown to the desired size. Any oysters they don’t use at their own farms will be sold to other growers.

By the spring of 2018, the hatchery will have grown their broodstock and will not have to buy larvae.

The entire time they are growing the oysters, Sawyer and his employees will be monitoring the ocean conditions. They work closely with academic institutions and also work to obtain grants for monitoring systems. 

“The most vulnerable stages are the rapidly growing high cell division stages,” said Sawyer. “When you have conditions changing out here, that’s when we’re going to see it first. Collaboration is working and we’re getting data.”

The water that Hog Island Oyster farm is growing on is public property – they lease the property from the government.

Sawyer said their biggest challenges are the regulations and policies surrounding their business. They are regulated by costal commissions in addition to local, state and national agencies. Sawyer said they face similar challenges to other business including financial hurdles and labor challenges, but operating on public property in the water adds another layer.

Sawyer said they have a responsibility to the land because they are downstream – whatever goes into the land goes into the water. They have to understand what’s going on with the land and all the practices surrounding it.

Hog Island Oyster Farm recently purchased a piece land adjacent to their current property in Marshall.

“We practice what we preach,” said Sawyer. “We’re intimately tied to a lot of the issues that go on in agriculture and the community. I was sort of raised with that managing the land mentality and keeping it for the next generation. So everything you do is going to be improving [the land] not just taking.”

For more information visit www.hogislandoysters.com.


Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the author and Sonoma County Farm Bureau when reprinting this item.

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