A shot of ocean
by Remy Tumin
Eating the perfect oyster is all about your state of mind. Sure, the fall season on the Vineyard is known as the best time to enjoy oysters’ briny goodness, but for oyster farmer Jeremy Scheffer, it’s all about the moment. “They definitely taste the best in the fall, but they taste good all the time,” Jeremy says, standing on the docks in Edgartown Harbor. “Do you know the saying, ‘it’s not about the cup of tea you’re having, but the mood you’re in’? That’s what it comes down to. Sometimes you’re out there in a really good mood and you think, ‘oh my God, that was the best oyster ever.’”
Jeremy, 31, is the owner of Martha’s Vineyard Spear Point Oysters, one of 12 oyster farms in Katama Bay. Oyster farming has taken off on the Vineyard in recent years for a variety of reasons— it’s commercially viable, oysters are environmentally friendly (acting as cleaning filters) and one slurp of an oyster is like a shot of ocean straight to the heart. “The really clean ocean taste is what I like about them,” he says.
Jeremy never thought he’d end up in the family business, let alone even liking oysters. (He always preferred clams.) He is the middle brother of three shellfishermen: his older brother Isaiah is the shellfish constable in Chilmark and younger brother Noah is getting into oysters now, too. But the draw of the ocean is nothing new for Jeremy. Growing up on the docks in Menemsha, Jeremy spent a lot of time fishing while his mom, Kristine, worked at Larsen’s Fish Market.
And his Island roots trace all the way back to Jeremy’s great-grandfather, Daniel Larsen, who first moved to the Island from Norway in 1922 after traveling the world as a merchant sailor. Jeremy’s grandparents, Louis and Mary Larsen, opened Larsen’s Fish Market in 1969. His grandfather and his brothers all fished, “dabbling in pretty much everything,” he says.
“If you hear my grandfather talk about fishing, it’s like the ocean was his first love,” he says.
Jeremy’s father, Roy, started an oyster farm out of Katama Bay while Jeremy was studying communications at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “I remember the exact conversation,” Jeremy says, remembering his dad’s first call about the business. “He goes, ‘I really think there’s a future in this—and I’ve got it pretty well figured out, if you ever want to do it.’”
Jeremy decided to pursue his degree, graduating from college in 2006. But after two years, he moved back to the Island and dove head-first into working alongside his dad. Though Jeremy still works closely with his father now, he set out to start his own company, Martha’s Vineyard Spear Points, in 2011.
A friend of Jeremy’s chose ‘Spear Points,’ a name steeped in history: “The Native Americans around here used to take oysters from the brackish water ponds into the saltwater ponds because they knew they tasted better,” says Jeremy.
Jeremy starts the off the harvesting process by picking up the oyster seeds, known as spat, from an off-Island hatchery every June. The initial seeds are the size of a grain of sand. Within 24 hours of leaving the hatchery, the seed is set in an upweller, a floating wood structure that houses the baby oysters. The spat is set on mesh sheets and as the oysters continue to grow, Jeremy upgrades the size of mesh. Eventually the oysters grow too large for the upweller and Jeremy moves them into bags and cages.
“Then our job is to eliminate anything that would impede their growth,” Jeremy says. “It really is, in a sense, farming because you’re weeding out anything that grows on the oysters.” And Katama Bay is booming with weeds—barnacles, sponges, jingle shells, quarterdecks. He has to keep a close eye on the oysters until they reach three inches, the size at which they can be harvested, a journey that takes about two years.
Even with this constant attention, the oyster farmers hit a bump last fall. This past September, the state closed Katama Bay for nearly a month after a bacterium called Vibrio parahaemolyticus (Vp) was traced back to the bay. The pathogen is commonly found in warmer waters and caused two people to fall ill.
In response, the oyster farmers banded together to ensure food safety and protect their livelihood. Jeremy has been a vocal proponent of community organizing and is a member of the newly formed Edgartown Shellfish Growers’ Association. The independent growers’ organization is looking to adopt food safety management protocols that go beyond the required norms and make sure an outbreak of Vp doesn’t happen again. “We’re trying to do all we can,” Jeremy says. “This Vibrio thing has brought us a lot closer; I feel like we’re a collective group now.”
Since the beginning, the individual parts of the Vineyard oyster community have always been vested in the success of the whole. “The greatest thing about Katama is guys, for the most part, are trying to help each other out,” he says. The members of the oyster community have established a culture of support, says Jeremy, and together look for ways to sustain their work for future generations.
“Farming is the way of the water,” Jeremy says. “You always want to think five or six generations ahead of yourself. I’m always trying to look that far ahead for the future of the people that are going to be here.”