Steamboat Wharf Oysters

Conservation is at the core of growing a good oyster.

Callie Robinson and Thomas Hyde, owners of Steamboat Wharf Oyster Co., both grew up by the water. Robinson in Virginia Beach and Hyde in Upper Lancaster. But growing up by the water doesn’t necessarily make one a waterman. That requires a dream, grit, and a healthy dose of naive optimism. 

Robinson recalls, “Over the years, Thomas would always say, ‘My family has an oyster lease; we should put oyster cages out there. They’ll grow, it’ll be passive income.’”

“When 2020 happened, we said, ‘Why not now? Let’s try it for a year.’”

The couple, who met at UVA, was living in Charlottesville at the time. With no oyster farming experience to speak of—beyond Hyde’s days spent raking up wild oysters with his avid outdoorsman father—they traded their button-downs and dress shoes for muddy boots and Grundéns overalls and lucked into impeccable timing, along with a rich community of retired watermen looking to offload their gear. “We jumped in with no experience and just started asking questions. We decided we’d learn as we go and figure it out,” says Robinson.

The oysters did, in fact, grow. But the passive income? Turns out it wasn’t passive at all. 

“When we started, we romanticized it. We’ll be on a boat every day—we’ll be on the water. Then it was like, holy moly, this is real labor. But it’s a labor of love,” says Robinson.

Callie and Thomas inspect their oyster baskets. Steamboat Wharf’s farm is located in a high wave energy area, which produces deep-cupped, clean oysters. Photography by Chris M. Rogers

Learning the Cages

The location of the Hyde family oyster lease is in a place once known as Steamboat Wharf, where the steamboats would come up the river to Washington, D.C., from Fredericksburg. There, the boats would pick up canned goods and, of course, oysters. The long-gone business left behind extensive oyster shell piles, which drew in the wild oyster population that inspired it all.

But harvesting wild oysters would not have been sustainable at the level Hyde and Robinson had in mind, and they turned to seeds from hatcheries, like Oyster Seed Holdings on Gwynn’s Island. 

“In March 2020, no one was buying oyster seed because restaurants weren’t buying oysters, and farmers didn’t have room for more seed … We actually got a discount. We planted way more than we needed,” explains Hyde. “Older watermen who’d transitioned from dredging and tonging to farming were retiring in the pandemic, and we stepped in to buy their supplies.”

The early days were a process of trial and error, but Hyde and Robinson looked at successful techniques in the region and as far away as New Zealand and applied those to their own farming. By 2023, they moved from bottom cages, which required exhausting manual labor to regularly clean and turn, to easier-to-maneuver floating cages.

Floating cages represented a major shift in their business, allowing them to do what was traditionally a month’s worth of work in a week and prompting a move to a new location closer to the bay. For the first time, they could see a path forward to producing enough oysters to justify their unconventional career change. 

“Each day, we’re tumbling and splitting. Depending on the season, we’re harvesting for markets and events. The farm tasks change.
It’s fixing and maintenance. Once summertime hits, it’s planting, it’s harvest, it’s events,” says Robinson, describing their routine.

Callie and Thomas show off class of 2025 oyster seed. Most Virginia oysters take 12–18 months to reach market size

Conservation on the River

Hyde and Robinson explain that they were both fortunate to be raised by conservationist families, and, from day one, they approached oyster farming with a focus on the health of the river and the bay.

“The more farm-raised oysters people eat, the more we’re alleviating stress on the wild population. We’re putting more shells back into the water for the wild population,” says Hyde.

Oysters are a critical species to the health of the Chesapeake Bay, yet, by the 1980s, overharvesting and disease caused the population to dwindle to just five percent of what it was in the 19th century. In 2023, Virginia hit its highest oyster numbers in 35 years. A single oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day, and each year that the population increases, the Bay and the
rivers move closer towards a healthier ecosystem. “Where there are oysters,
it’s like an aquarium—eels, crabs, speckled trout,” remarks Robinson.

“For every oyster we sell, we buy ten more to put into the river,” says Robinson. “The more oysters, the more farms, the better it is for the environment. This process is circular.”

From the Rappahannock to Restaurants

Like many businesses that launched in the early 2020s, Hyde and Robinson initially turned to direct-to-consumer sales to get up and running. By 2022, with the threat of overgrown oysters looming, they began working with a distributor, Sam Rust Seafood. 

“We needed to focus on growing oysters, not hitting the streets selling. We were concerned distributors wouldn’t look at us because we’re new, there are only two of us, and we can’t churn out the same amount as bigger, more established distributors. But Sam Rust said, let’s start with what you have,” explains Hyde.

With Sam Rust Seafood’s connections and Steamboat Wharf Oyster Co.’s product, they were soon in the door at restaurants like Pinky’s, Birdie’s Bar & Café, and Metzger Bar & Butchery, all in Richmond.

Hyde and Robinson also book events and weddings as oysters have become an increasingly popular addition
to celebrations. “We love working events and talking to guests—so many people don’t understand that there are
oyster farmers, what that means, or why oysters matter in the ecosystem,” says Robinson, who takes any opportunity to spread the oyster gospel.

And it’s not a hard sell to get friends and family to tag along to help in a sort of grassroots oyster movement. Robinson exclaims, “They love being outside with us, and they’ll even help shuck!” 

This article originally appeared in the August 2024 issue. 

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