The world is this man’s oyster. Literally.
Buddy McClure, 44, harvests about 3,000 oysters daily during summers at Umpqua Aquaculture, a quiet fishing village on the coast of Oregon.
The slimy, briny job is something of a love/hate relationship for McClure. “I’ve been that guy in the office, and I’d rather be doing this,” he says, referring to jobs at various pharmaceutical corporations before moving to Oregon ten years ago. Now, he can’t imagine doing anything else. “I always loved the coast…I wish I would have [become an oyster farmer] a long time ago.”
Umpqua Aquaculture, which has been around for 25 years, is located in the Umpqua Triangle, where the Umpqua River meets the Pacific Ocean. Its oysters are suspended on long lines so they never touch the ocean floor.
During the off-season, in the fall and winter, McClure hunts, fishes, crabs, and spends time with his three sons, the eldest of whom has worked at the farm for the past three summers. But none of his sons eat oysters for dinner when McClure brings home some of the thousands he harvests each day. “My boys don’t like them, so I just bring home a pint for my wife and me,” he says matter-of-factly.
Below, McClure describes the perfect oyster (firm, not gritty, with an oblong bottom), his favorite way to eat ‘em, and the harvesting process.
Graduated from: Cordova Senior High School. I didn’t go to college.
Based in: Winchester Bay, Oregon
Number of oysters harvested per day: About 3,000 during the summer
In the industry for: 3 years, on and off
Previous jobs: Operations manager for a medical distribution company
How you made the transition to oyster farming: I’ve always been intrigued by the Pacific Northwest – specifically, with fishing and hunting. Ten years ago, after going through a divorce, I decided to move there, and was offered a shot to learn how to shuck and harvest oysters.
What do you do at work all day? During our peak season, from the end of May until the end of September, I orchestrate where and when to harvest the oysters, and how many. [At Umpqua Aquaculture], our oysters are situated in the Umpqua Triangle, suspended using buoys. The oysters are cleaner since they’re not sitting in silt and sand.
Explain harvesting to someone who has never eaten an oyster before. We drive out a tractor – a new orange Kubota L4400 – and take them off a long rope. We bring back the oysters to our processing plant, where we place them into a huge cooler with a forklift and separate them by size.
Your routine during the off-season: Replenishing what we harvested over the summer. We save the shells with oyster larvae – the larvae are about the size of eraser heads – and hang them on the cleared lines.
Most important lesson learned: You need to be flexible in this industry. The weather affects what you can and can’t do. Sometimes, while working in a storm, I’ll be cold and wet – and stop to think, why am I doing this? But it’s a love/hate thing. I’ve been that guy in the office, and I’d rather be doing this.
What does the perfect oyster taste like? It shouldn’t be gritty – that means it’s been down in the muck and sand. It should taste like fresh ocean water, and the texture will be firm.
Can you tell by looks alone? The bottom should be an oblong shape. I wear orange rubber gloves all the time, since you can’t handle oysters barehanded. They’re very sharp.
What does your oyster farming outfit include, besides the orange gloves? Extra-tough Arctic insulated boots, bibs, and rain gear, including a rain hat and raincoat.
Best part of your job: I have the same tasks, but every day is a little different. I love being out on the water. It’s not really a thrill; you get the sense that you’re out in an environment that’s completely wild, but I’m not scared out there.
Most challenging part of your job: [Umpqua Aquaculture] is a small retail store, so it’s tough to balance everything. I also bring in shrimp, crab, and fresh fish when they’re available.
How often do you eat oysters? About once per week.
Favorite way to eat an oyster: Fried in Panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) with cocktail sauce and horseradish. I also love shooters – opened raw oysters – with a little hot sauce.
If you could eat one food for the rest of your life: It wouldn’t be oysters. Probably a T-bone steak.
Other hobbies: Hunting, fishing, crabbing, spending time in the woods.
Any non-outdoor activities? I also bowl.
Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years? Right here.
LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Diversify your skill level. Before getting hired at Umpqua, I learned to operate equipment like a forklift, tractor, and boat; to fix things mechanically; and to tie different knots. All of those skills apply to my job now. But one necessary skill you need to be a plain oyster farmer is running an air chisel.