Wedged between the briny, gray sky and sea about a mile and a half from Hudson's Seafood House on the Docks, a sandbar supports the newest venture of the Hilton Head Island restaurant's general manager.
A few dozen metal cages rest on the sand, each holding a few baskets and thousands of "single select" oysters -- labor-intensive, individual mollusks that feature deeper cups than the clustered varieties for which Beaufort County is known.
Even more cages are hidden under the water of Port Royal Sound, where general manager Andrew Carmines placed them last August.
In a month or two, Carmines will bring in the first harvest from his new farm, the Shell Ring Oyster Co. Although he started small, with about 75,000 oysters for the winter, Carmines and other farmers say there's nearly unlimited demand for bivalves hand-grown in South Carolina's waters. "Oysters are going through a culinary explosion right now," said Doug Hepburn, sales manager of St. Jude Farms in Green Pond.
Bill Cox, a Younges Island mariculture farmer who produces Carmines' seed oysters, said the success comes from a demand for oysters with the deep cup of Gulf varieties and the salty taste of South Carolina water.
"You can sell pretty much all the single-select oysters you can grow," Cox said.
On Thursday morning, Carmines paid a trip to his farm to exert a little quality control. After a 10-minute ride in a small fishing boat dubbed the "Oyster Hoister," he trudged into the water to sample some of his product.
"That's about as pretty as it gets," Carmines said after prying open a rounded shell about one inch thick. "Look at how perfect that critter is.""Not for breakfast," said Shell Ring operations manager Robert Roe, but Carmines swallowed the oyster, anyway, with a smile.
Carmines began planning his farm about four years ago and named the business after the oyster-shell rings American Indians built around their colonies.
Carmines and Cox developed the seed oysters, which remain in the Younges Island man's hatchery until they're about the size of a pinkie nail. Then they feed and grow in mesh baskets in Port Royal Sound, getting tumbled and turned periodically by Carmines' crew.
"Now it's time to really let them sit and enjoy life," he said. "As soon as we get under 70 degrees for a few weeks, the meat inside those oysters will plump up and be ready to go."
The operations are strictly regulated by several agencies, including the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard, said Carmines, who leases his farming area from the state.
However, Carmines said applying for permits has been more of a learning experience than a roadblock, and the farms benefit the environment.
Frank Roberts of Lady's Island believes he opened the first farm in the state in 2007. He says he sold hundreds of thousands of his Single Lady Oysters last year, primarily to restaurants in Charleston.
Roberts said he expects more people to join the market in the coming years and isn't concerned about competition."The future is bright," he said.
St. Jude Farms, which has been growing single-select oysters since 2012, welcomes variety in the market, as well, Hepburn said. Though the mollusks are grown in the same region, oysters from Green Pond, Hilton Head and Lady's Island will still have slightly different tastes and can be featured on the same menu, he said.
"They grow like wine grapes," Hepburn said. "There's hundreds of different kinds of merlot, and it all depends on the soil that the grapes are grown in."
Carmines has invested about $30,000 in his business so far and plans to market his oysters regionally. He added that Shell Ring benefits from his connection to a restaurant.
For now, much product will stay within Hudson's, landing on customers' plates within an hour of harvest, he said.
"That's the essence of serving raw oysters," he said. "It doesn't get better than that."
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