The Little Ram Oyster Co., a farm of 2 million oysters on the North Fork of Long Island, started with a Groupon.
To celebrate a friend’s birthday in the summer of 2017, Stefanie Bassett and Elizabeth Peeples joined eight other enthusiasts in Long Island City to learn how to shuck oysters at a discount. The Brooklyn couple, who knew each other from middle school in Columbia, Md., always had a love for the delicacy. But as they laughed with their friends and fumbled with their oyster knives, they also listened intently as an instructor explained the history and magic of the mollusks.
“The thing that drew our attention was the positive environmental impact oysters have,” said Ms. Bassett, 42.
Among the ocean’s best filter feeders, one oyster cleans 50 gallons of water per day. New York was once known as “the Big Oyster,” but over-harvesting and poor water quality wiped out the population by the 21st century. The couple learned about efforts to bring them back to the harbor.
Faster than one can slurp an oyster, Ms. Bassett, who worked in advertising at the time, and Ms. Peeples, then an interior designer, decided to become oyster farmers. “We said, ‘OK, let’s give ourselves five years,’” Ms. Bassett said, “‘save money, change our budget, change our way of living.’”
They took research trips to the bays of Rhode Island, the only place where farmers responded to their inquiries, and searched “oyster farms for sale” on the internet. Then one day, an ad popped up for a farm for sale in Gardiners Bay near the western shore of Shelter Island.
“The minute I landed on the North Fork, I was in love,” Ms. Bassett said. “It’s wine country, and there are beaches. It’s the most amazing place ever.”
She spent a 72-degree, flat-water day with the farm’s then-owner.
A 15-minute boat ride from the hamlet of Southold, it’s 10 square acres, visible from the surface only by lines of bobbing buoys marking the locations of oyster cages.
It’s immersed in a community of oyster farms. Of the 79 oyster cultivation permits issued in New York so far in 2023, 39 are in Peconic and Gardiners Bays, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
‘Whoa! These are good.’
To Ms. Bassett, this was the ultimate piece of real estate. She returned home to their Prospect Heights condo at 1 a.m. with a bag full of product.
“I got Elizabeth up and we’re eating oysters at 1 a.m. being like, ‘Whoa! These are good,” Ms. Bassett said.
Never mind that the pair had no experience in oyster farming or any type of farming. Nor had they ever driven a boat. With a positivity that’s woven into both their personalities, they were in talks with the owner to purchase his business and equipment by the following week.
Typically, farmers purchase underwater land grants from former owners or a local municipality. The plots come with permission to cultivate shellfish.
The submerged area under Little Ram was acquired in 2012 as part of the Suffolk County Shellfish Aquaculture Lease Program. A 2009 initiative aimed to spur the local economy by offering 10-year renewable leases on 10-acre sites to shellfish farmers in Peconic and Gardiners Bays. As of this month, there are 36 leases in effect, totaling 590 acres, according to the county executive.
Ms. Bassett and Ms. Peeples were buying a business, which included an Eastern 22’ Lobster work boat, commercial refrigeration equipment, cages, buoys and 150,000 oysters.
The sale also came with the rights to the official name, Cornelius & Little Ram Oyster Company L.L.C. Named for its location, as is tradition for oyster companies, the farm is visible from Shelter Island, positioned between Cornelius Point and Little Ram Island.
Permits from the U.S. Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers, along with the lease, had to be transferred to Ms. Bassett and Ms. Peeples, as well.
After some negotiation, they agreed to pay $117,000 for the business. Since a recent kitchen and bathroom renovation in their Brooklyn apartment ate up their savings, they needed a loan.
The trouble was, the financial and legal pros they turned to couldn’t find any comparable oyster business sales, so they looked at the commercial fishing and agricultural farming industries. “Nobody knew how to deal with this. Insurance companies didn’t know. Lawyers didn’t know,” Ms. Bassett said.
In September 2018, they borrowed a $130,000 small business loan from Bridgehampton National Bank, now Dime Community Bank, to have extra money as a buffer, and within the next two months, the couple sold their two-bedroom co-op and moved to Southold to take over the lease and the oyster business. Ms. Peeples left interior design behind and Ms. Bassett commuted two hours to her advertising job in the city on weekdays for the first nine months while tending to the new venture on the weekends.
Fish Out of Water
Then they needed to learn to farm oysters — they got a week’s worth of basic operation instruction with the purchase of the farm.
Ms. Bassett and Ms. Peeples arrived on Day One ready to get their hands wet. Figuring they should look the part, they sported industry-approved, Grundéns fishing coats and bibs.
“We were wearing them incorrectly,” Ms. Bassett admitted, chuckling at their naïveté. Fishing coats aren’t meant to be tucked inside bibs, a lesson learned when their pants filled with water on a rainy day.
As for driving and docking the boat, that had a learning curve, too.
“Luckily it was winter, and there was no one else around because it was just crash, crash, crash,” Ms. Bassett recalled of their first few attempts.
As any seafarer knows, the ocean won’t wait for a newbie to get their bearings.
“We’re also dealing with Mother Nature,” said Ms. Peeples, 42. The softer spoken of the two, she chimed in between Ms. Bassett’s jokes. “When the winds are from the West, it’s very favorable; from the East, we get slammed,” she said.
Some days on the boat are beautiful, but others are choppy and cold, stinging farmers’ faces with spray while they hustle to fill orders. And oysters take time, one shell at time.
Each one is handled over and over through its cultivation, and some Long Island farms have around 10 million, said Rob Carpenter, director of the Long Island Farm Bureau.
Some oyster farmers breed their oysters, but others purchase them as babies, or as “seed.” At Aeros Cultured Oyster Company in Southold, the hatchery where Ms. Peeples and Ms. Bassett buy their seed, youngsters cost $13 to $46 per 1,000. The price depends on how large they are, which indicates their maturity and likelihood to survive after purchase, said Karen Rivara, who owns the hatchery.
Babies are kept in square silos to keep them safe from conch snails, oyster drills and other predators. They’re repeatedly sorted, either by hand or an electronic sorting machine.
After oysters are harvested, they’re rolled around in an aluminum barrel called a tumbler, which breaks off the sharp edges and encourages the oysters to cling to the insides of their shells, creating a deeper cup and heartier meat.
“It’s very labor intensive. People don’t realize,” Mr. Carpenter said.
Ms. Bassett recalled a particularly tough day in August 2019, after her wife left to have their son, Finn. It took a whole day to hoist one cage over the boat’s fiberglass hull. Laden with seaweed, it was so heavy the electronic hauler beeped and quit in protest, leaving her to bring them up by hand.
“We called them muppets,” she said of the cages at the time. “They had seaweed and things all over them and they were huge and crazy.”
‘Tastes Like Vacation’
Pros now, Ms. Peeples and Ms. Bassett proudly brag about shucking 150 oysters each in a half an hour, a long way since the Groupon class. They are also expert boaters now, naming their vessel “LALU,” short for “love and like you,” a pet phrase in Ms. Bassett’s family. It was also the theme of their nuptials in May 2017, a weekend-long affair in Chestertown, near the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. They served oysters as an appetizer.
“Stef and I have the ultimate partnership in our life and our business,” Ms. Peeples said. The couple now own a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath saltbox with a heated in-ground saltwater pool, a short walk from the beach. “We have never worked harder and been dirtier, but could not be happier at the end of the day.”
One day in early spring, Ms. Bassett laid a few out in a decorative circle over ice on a round tray. Their inner walls are spotless, their flavor salty from their resting spot at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
“Ours are popular because they’re very white,” she said, adding that, “tastes like vacation,” is their new tagline.
“It does taste like vacation,” Ms. Peeples piped in. “They’re really clean and crisp from the high current, with a sweet, mellow finish.”
When they first took over the farm, some oysters were a foot long. Those were perfect for Grand Central Oyster Bar on East 42nd Street, which was serving oversized oysters, to be cut with a knife and fork like steak, at the time and gave them their first restaurant order in August 2019.
As their business has grown, they have taken on distinctive roles: Ms. Bassett became the captain and manages all work on the boat. Ms. Peeples is the operations and on-land farm manager, so she’s readily available to Finn, who’s now 3.
They also went from a two-woman operation to a five-woman business, plus one man Rob Ewing, who is also owner of the shellfish delivery service Finest Tide Shellfish and now handles the chore of delivering their oysters to restaurants in the city at the crack of dawn.
Little Rams are now in 15 to 20 restaurants on the North Fork and in Manhattan. Out East, this includes the North Fork Table & Inn and François Payard’s Southold Social on the North Fork. They’re on the menu at Cull & Pistol in Chelsea Market and in the Michelin-chef John Fraser’s three New York City restaurants, including Iris, which serves Mediterranean fare in Midtown.
Among their other ventures, the couple hosts a Wednesday happy hour in a food truck owned by the Shoals, a hotel next to their land facility in Southold. They sell their oysters at festivals and a local farm stand and host farm tours by boat in the summer.
They’re installing an oyster automat outside the warehouse to sell boxes of Little Rams and shucking gear, and plan to bottle their homemade oyster sauce. Back on the bay, the old salt was skeptical of the new competition at first. It’s not every day that a couple shows up from Brooklyn and elbows their way in with folks who grew up clamming. Most oyster farmers had first careers as baymen, not advertisers and interior designers.
“They had a different mind-set where you have to be able to sell the product in a more creative way,” said Ms. Rivara, 64, who owns the hatchery and is a 40-year shellfish farming veteran. “They have a different skill set for selling stuff. I never went to school for sales and marketing.”
Ms. Bassett and Ms. Peeples do know how to brand themselves, appearing in Vogue and other glossy publications, yet many longstanding oyster farmers, Ms. Rivara included, said they have come to appreciate their gumption.
They’re more involved in the local maritime community, too. They joined the Long Island Oyster Growers Association, where Ms. Bassett helps with public relations and marketing. In November 2021, Ms. Peeples was elected to be a Southold town trustee, a position that helps oversee the activity in the town’s underwater land and within 100 feet of its shoreline.
Phil Mastrangelo, 57, part owner of the Oysterponds Shellfish Company in Orient, one of the biggest farms on Long Island with 10 million oysters, said the wife-and-wife team’s marketing has benefited others. “The New York oyster was once the No. 1 oyster in the world and it’s good for them to be promoting the region again,” he said. “It helps all of us.”