Farm Share

Farm Share

Our shoreline isn’t considered farm country, but the town of Madison can boast a thriving 350-acre farm right at water’s edge. Or rather, under it.

The ground the Indian River Shellfish Co. farms is marked only by a series of buoys at the mouth of the Hammonasset River, showing the farmers where to locate their “crop”: oysters. And the headquarters, the working part of the operation, is visible from the Post Road only by roadside signage saying, “Whole fish. Fresh local oysters. Lobsters. Clams.” The sign appears only when someone is there to greet customers. If you see it, take a quick turn on to a bumpy extension of Cottage Road that leads to a big muddy, rutty expanse fronting a little shack by a dock. The ground is covered with crushed shells, and on the wall of the shack is the day’s menu, including “oysters $12/dz”—a deal compared to local grocery stores.

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The price of oysters isn’t the only pleasant surprise. Finding the place and negotiating the approach presents a challenge, but one look at the view over the river, past the tall grasses of Hammonasset out to the Sound, compels you to sit awhile. You’re likely to meet one of the partners, either George Harris or Mike Gilman, who could qualify as the odd couple of aquaculture. Friends since childhood, they both enjoy a lifelong fascination with the sea. Harris became a commercial fisherman. Gilman went the academic route, becoming a science professor with a specialty in marine life. Together they can handle whatever problems an oyster can present. “We complement each other,” Gilman says. “I know what seed to order or if the state’s doing bacteria sampling, I understand all that. But when the boat breaks, he has to fix it.”

“Seed” refers to juvenile oysters—tiny organisms that will, if all goes well, eventually grow up. Gilman says their average size is about four millimeters, which is no help for this landlubber reporter trying to describe them. The science professor offers a quick tutorial. “They’re about the size of a pinhead. I can fit 10 of ’em on my pinkie fingernail. It’s just a speck.”

The seeds are loaded into perforated rubber bags and set out in the farm field, where they will spend nearly three years maturing. During that time, they will be raised from their nesting area every couple of months and brought here to the dock to be cleaned, scraped free of parasites and sorted by size. They will then be put back in the bags and returned to the underwater farm. Harris says the oysters undergo this cleaning and sorting process as many as 15 times before they’re big enough to sell.

The enterprise was Harris’s idea “about 15 years ago,” he says. Gilman continues the story. “One day we said, ‘Why don’t we start farming oysters.’ I love teaching, but it’s very difficult during the spring and the fall to be in a classroom and know what could be going on at the dock.” Harris picks up the tale. “We sold our first oyster three years later,” he says, and their wholesale business flourished—until COVID. Restaurants were closing, demand was shrinking. It was a time to adjust their business model. They began selling retail, but that roadside sign, in addition to a website and active social media pages, was their only marketing tool. “We never spent a dime on advertising,” Harris says proudly. They built a retail following, adding lobster, clams and fish to their product line. It kept them in business, and it kept Harris out on the water. The morning I visited them, he had “gone out at 4 a.m. to catch some lobsters.” He said it with a smile that admitted no discomfort over the early wake-up.

They now sell about 50,000 oysters a year, fewer than before the pandemic but enough to cover expenses. Do they make a profit? The question is met with a loud and extended round of laughter. They seem tickled by the question and explain that “most of the money we make goes into paying the bills,” as Harris says. Gilman is still smiling as he nods his agreement.

The operation is clearly a labor of love. Gilman begins to speak, takes a long breath, looks out to where the land meets the water. “The force of this world is whatever you can do to stay on the water and just be here and not sitting at a desk or a computer,” he says. “When you have it in you—I don’t want to say there’s no other place for you, but there’s few people who can sit here in a marsh and get chewed up by bugs and do this with a smile.”

Indian River Shellfish Co.
Cottage Road, Madison (map)
(203) 605-5158 |

Written and photographed by Jim Murphy.

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