August 5th, 2011
10:00 AM ET
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When Captain John Smith explored the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, he wrote that the oysters "lay as thick as stones." But hundreds of years of harvesting every oyster in sight have brought the bivalve population in the bay to record lows. Fewer oysters means murkier water, as a single oyster can filter 50 to 60 gallons a day. Dredge harvesting didn’t help either, as scooping up wild oysters flattens the bottom and ruins their habitat.

Cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton of Rappahannock River Oysters are trying to turn the tide. Their great-grandfather founded the company in 1899 when he leased five acres of river bottom on the Rappahannock River near Bowlers Wharf, VA. Their grandfather advised their father not to get into the family business, as it’s a lot of hard work with uncertain return; Hurricane Hazel wiped out their entire season’s efforts in 1954.

But when the lease on the family oyster beds came up for renewal about ten years ago, the Croxton cousins decided that they had to reboot the family tradition in a sustainable way. Moving away from their former jobs in finance and marketing, they studied aquaculture: a process which uses commercially-available oyster larvae grown in the lab as seed for cultivating oysters.

The cousins order spat, or baby oysters, from a few different hatcheries. The spat grow in a tank called an upweller, which pumps nutrient-rich water through a million and a half tiny oysters. After they’re big enough to be out on their own, the oysters go into cages of varying sizes, which protect them from predators. The cages go onto the river bottom, on carefully-selected spots where water flow rates, salt levels, types of algae, and the firmness of the soil are all considered.

RRO sells several varieties of oysters, which all taste different: the species is the same, but the location of the farm affects their mineral content and salinity, a concept the cousins call "merroir," a play on the French concept of "terroir," or how the land’s characteristics dictate the flavor of wine grapes.

It takes an oyster a year and a half or so to get to market size, “We were selling T-shirts the first year,” owner Ryan Croxton said. Every oyster is pulled out of the water every two weeks, inspected, and sorted for size.

Harvesting happens three times a week, always in the early mornings when it’s cooler. They use boats with canopies and tarps to shade the oysters, and try to get their temperatures down to 45 degrees as quickly as possible. Working fast, the cousins bag the oysters right on the boat and put them straight into coolers.

From this point on, it’s all about speed and how fast can they move 60,000 oysters a week to their eventual destinations. "Logistics has become our forte," Ryan Croxton says. "We pride ourselves in getting product there the next day."

From the marina, refrigerator trucks rush the oysters to local customers and the Norfolk airport for air freight on Southwest Airlines to customers farther away.

“We could not have Forrest Gumped our way any more”, Ryan says, of the cousins’ first attempts to sell their oysters. They drove to New York City with a full cooler, called the reservations line at famed seafood palace Le Bernardin, and wangled a meeting with chef Eric Ripert, who loved the buttery sweetness of the oysters and placed an order right away. RRO now works with distributors and places their oysters in restaurants and groceries across the country.

The Croxtons’ ultimate goal isn’t just to sell some seafood and make a buck, however. “Sustainability is not enough”, Ryan says. “You can build what you’re doing into something that is completely restorative.”

To that end, RRO is partnering with other local oyster growers to increase the total size of the oyster market, and to produce shucked farmed oysters under the Barcat brand. A percentage of the profits goes into their newly-established Barcat Foundation, which supports environmental programs around Chesapeake Bay.

It is, in their words, a "long-term seafood strategy" that they hope will assure the future generations of oyster lovers can keep on shucking.

Previously - An oyster primer for National Oyster Day

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Filed under: Aquaculture • Business and Farming News • News • Oysters • Sustainability

soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. G24U

    Now that is responsible entrepreneurship that a liberal can get behind.

    September 20, 2014 at 10:35 pm |
  2. Seth

    These guys are great. I order a hundred or so oysters every year for my Christmas party from them. I've gotten them for 3 years now and never been disappointed. As an oyster fan, you have to do your part and only buy from farmed oysters rather than wild caught. This is the only way we can bring the bay back as farmed oysters are actually a big benefit to their environment.

    August 7, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  3. R

    I like my raw oysters and clams with nothing on them. Like my men. Although I do like the shellfish better.

    August 6, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  4. hubbaabubba

    Thank you for this great story
    Please CNN post more stories like this which show a innovative interesting human piece.
    I would much rather read about this than Lyndsey Lohan/Paris Hilton/Kim kardassian any day!

    August 6, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
    • AleeD@...bubba

      Then stay tuned right here. Eatocracy posts lots of articles like this.
      Usually the only mention of trollops (a bitter, foul-tasting meat) is by funny or sarcastic posters.

      August 8, 2011 at 7:09 am |
  5. Jim970

    I will do my part. I promise to never eat an oyster (of course I haven't before, but ignore that).

    August 6, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
  6. Walt

    They ought to be looking at Willapa Bay in SW Washington...where unpolluted water produces the best oysters in America.

    August 6, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  7. H

    I have great respect for these guys. Now if we can breed tuna, crabs, lobsters, veggies, etc. Our world can clone sheep and create test tube babies so why don't we do something a bit more important and make sure our population has enough sustainable food

    August 6, 2011 at 1:47 am |
  8. Gary

    Great work by two great guys.

    August 5, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
  9. Chuck Norris Watcher

    Chuck Norris does not tea bag, Chuck Norris potato sacks!

    August 5, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  10. Emily J Newman

    Another great initiative is the From the Bay For the Bay Dine Out that DNR is sponsoring this year! From October 2 – 9 participating Maryland restaurants will have Maryland seafood specials on their menu and $1 from each meal will go to save the oysters! More about that here:

    August 5, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  11. Kendra Bailey Morris

    Great article. Love what the Croxton brothers are doing for Virginia's Chesapeake Bay. As a VA native, we travel there often, especially for the annual oyster fest in Reedville. Lots of locals are also doing there part to re-establish our oyster population by growing and harvesting their own, which is great.

    August 5, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  12. Rob

    Nice to see.
    The truth about environmentalisim is that it will only be implemented in the US when it is profitable to do so. This family is a wonderful example of what can be accomplished through hard work and dedication to both business and environment.

    What we need is for people like this to package the concept and figure out how to profitably franchise it to all forms of food production. We need less Cargill, and ADM and more of this.


    August 5, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • G24U

      You got that right. Cargill has no concept of eco-friendly farming.

      September 20, 2014 at 10:39 pm |
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