The last country on our Nuffield GFP was USA. We flew Turkish Airlines to Boston, via Munich, and had to contend with real jet lag again for the first time in four countries. I have begun to measure everything in the number of countries ago as in “Where did we last have lamb for dinner? Oh, that was three countries ago.”
Our hotel was the extremely grand Park Plaza, which is apparently where the President stays when he is in town, because there is no underground carpark. And I have corroborating evidence: there is a picture of Bill Clinton getting his hair cut in the hotel salon where we all went to get spiffied up after five weeks in the world's outermost outposts.
Anyway, Michelle Carroll told me that interesting titbit about the Park Plaza. The fact that I ran into our Deputy Principal in a city of 4.6 million people on the other side of the world is gob-smacking. I happened to be talking to both Wayne and Pip on Viber in the lobby (morally objecting for just one day to paying $12.50 for wifi in our room), when what I thought was a familiar face walked out the door. I said to Pip, “Gee that lady that just walked past looked just like Ms Carroll”. She thought for a minute and said, yes, I think she is somewhere overseas. So that meant it had to be her, of course. I raced out the door, leaving Viber on, so Pip and Wayne actually heard our whole conversation, lucky we didn't give away any state secrets! Michelle came to dinner with the Nuffers that night and a great time was had by all (even though we fade early in the evenings….)
But I am getting ahead of myself. On our first morning in Boston, or Bawston, as we locals say, we met our host, Nathan L'Etoile, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Alex Dowse also accompanied us. Alex had very kindly picked us up from the airport the prior afternoon, and it was a great pity that we just didn't get time to visit his apple orchard, which has been in the family for five generations.
Nathan L'Etiole, 2012 Eisenhower Fellow, Four Star Farms Inc
Island Creek Oysters: A high tide floats all boats.
Our two farm visits this day were almost as diverse as you can get in agriculture: oysters and cranberries. The Island Creek Oysters operation is in the very bay that the Mayflower sailed into in 1620, with 102 English Pilgrims on board. The town of Duxbury was officially founded in 1637, with some of the original Mayflower pilgrims, and today enjoys status as one of the top ten coastal locations to live in the US.
Mmmm I could live in any one of them. How 'bout this one?
Let me tell you, I can see why: it is an absolutely picture-postcard-perfect town of 15,000 people, that was made all the more charming (and clichéd) being the day before Fourth of July: all the stately houses were decked out with red white and blue flags and bunting. I can see why Bostonians call it 'Deluxebury'.
But we were in Deluxebury to visit Island Creek Oysters. They farm, market and distribute, and pride themselves on the integrity of their brand, and their connection to end users. They are aiming for the higher tier of the market, cultivating relationships with chefs. For example, Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in California, one of the top restaurants in the States uses Island Creek Oysters in his signature, 15 course tasting menu (for $350 plus matching wines!).
Their latest endeavour is the hatchery, which they started last year in a converted boat building shed to keep capital costs low and understand the viability of the project. Although they are still buying in 50% of their seed, next season they will begin selecting genetics and cross-breeding for an 'Island Creek' style oyster, with a clean, round shell. Three years ago they lost 85% of their crop over two crop cycles (18month cycle) from a naturally occurring disease called MSX. That highlighted the need to think about breeding for natural varieties and resistance, with the added bonus of a particular look for their oysters.
We had a tour led by Shore Gregory, the president of the company, and also had a chance to spend time with the founder, Skip Bennet. Skip started the business in the late 90's, and although oysters are native to the area, there weren't any in the bay.
When the oysters are milky white they have enough genetic material to spawn, in a natural spawning bath. Conception to setting takes 20 days.
Elise is the hatchery manager. She told us oyster farming is an art not science.
The brood stock are sequential hermaphrodites of the Virginica species. Under the microscope we looked at tiny, tiny oyster spawn.
Elise brings in filtered bay water to produce seven different types of algae with different nutritional values, that require CO2 and light for photosynthesis. The 100 or so brood stock in the hatchery are fed 6 times per day using 18-20 liters of water per day each
Island Creek Oysters produce 1.5 million oysters per year themselves, and bring to market approximately 6-7 million, In these silos with micro mesh screens, an upwelling process keeps the oysters clean and sorted for size, and bridges the gap from 1mm to 50mm
This was an exclusively recreational harbour and even though oyster leases are governed by state guidelines (state water) the town manages the bay and they had to work with the town to get permits. The town council set the maximum lease size at 3 acres even though the state guideline is 10 acres. The industry is a total of 27 acres, in a bay of 300,000 acres.
Morality is 30% to setting, 30% to harvest and another 65% out on the water. They can't be farmed indoors because of the amount of food and water they need - 50gallons of seawater per day
Skip was the first to have a floating nursery, and they are the only farm in Duxbury with one: it is an awesome spot for nutrient levels. This whole area ices over in winter, so all the gear has to come in from here from mid-October. Shuttling the gear out then back in every season is an intense part of their work.
Then in the middle of August, they plant the oysters in the mud. According to oyster farmers, you need a Zen state for planting: you need the wind at its most calm and the water at its most clear, as close to low tide as possible – this water is only 3-4 ft deep, and in a couple of hours from this shot, will all by mud (9 ft tides). To plant, you fill the boat with oyster seed, and broadcast onto the bottom of the bay
You have to use your imagination to see the farm...there are two crops on the bottom at different ages. Duxbury beach is the natural feature that allows the oyster production, and there is an upwelling of cold water coming in twice a day with south-west breezes. In summer, the water temperature is typically 70 degrees F
This grading station is all solar.
Labour is 50% of costs, exclusive of seed costs. Logistics is a huge part of their business: really once the oysters come off the water, they characterise themselves as a logistics company.
They use a tube grader called Bubba - this is mechanical grading not by hand. Shore feels that innovation will come through harvesting and processing not planting. They are able to get quality and consistency: 85c is the typical price inclusive of shipping and at their high-end they get $1.35 (to California).
Oysters are like wine they take on the terroir: the taste is in the level of salinity etc of their environment
Mayflower Cranberries, is one of 400 cranberry farms in Massachusetts. Greg has 112 acres in total, with 25 acres of cranberries. He purchased the farm just three years ago, after working for the state Cranberry association.
Some of the original vines planted in 1880 are still here. He is using three of four native varieties, one of which was discovered here in Plympton. They were used by the native Americans for food, dyes and medicines
In 1820 the first commercial farm started in Massachusetts, then production spread. Wisconsin is the biggest production state, Massachusetts is next, then Quebec. Ocean Spray have just purchased land and started growing in Chile which is the first venture outside North America
This is a traditional wooden cranberry scoop, that is now worth $200-$300, but even now there is no commercially avail equipment, just locally made machinery innovations.
Let me tell you how cranberries are grown: Flooding cranberry beds helps protect them from cold, then in winter, sand is applied over the iced bogs to stimulate the vines when they come out of dormancy in April. But they must be protected from frost, as the bog temperature can be 10 degrees colder than the surrounding fields. So they monitor temperatures, start pumps remotely from smart phones, and run irrigation systems. In the growing season the vines need supplemental water and fertigation. Managing water and determining exact moisture requirements is critical as too much water reduces yields. Insects are captured with pheromone traps to monitor pests for target spraying.
Water harvesting was introduced in the 1960s and it is how 95% of cranberries are harvested. A water reel knocks fruit off the vine, then more water is put into the bog and the berries are floated off. All wet harvest berries are processed for juice, sweet and dried cranberries, concentrate and sauce. Dry picked berries are combed into bins and airlifted by helicopters and sold specifically as premium fresh fruit for the holiday market.
Paul from Ocean Spray Cranberries spoke to us about the way the cooperative works. 60% of cranberries are grown for the Ocean Spray co-operative. The law that started co-operatives was passed in 1922 and Ocean Spray was one of them. They were producing fresh and canned fruit, then in 1963 they began marketing juice when they realised they couldn't rely on four week holiday sales. Since the juice is only 20% juice, profits doubled. Ocean spray provided the price umbrella for many years and Ocean Spray had 85% of market. A technical innovation in the '90s called reverse osmosis (from Australia!) revolutionized getting the juice out, and being left with a nice hard hull. So they came up with introducing sugar, rehydrating the fruit, and invented craisins. The co-operative invented another revenue stream, and it highlights how year after year, growers have invested in the brand, which is a remarkable success story, and a wonderful economic arena for farmers…
Ocean Spray pays on a pool system, with two pools, and bonuses for quality and colour.
The big challenges for the industry now are
- scale: they are small in the beverage world;
- the next innovation to make better use of cranberries
- oversupply issue, which they are trying to solve by taking product to new markets like India.
- the war on sugar, dried cranberries have added sugar but exception by FDA to be able to be sold in schools because of the health benefits of cranberries
Greg rents 60 hives of bees to pollinate the cranberries which costs $5000/yr. The migratory hives go back to Louisiana for the winter
Last year he started a 'Be the Grower' agritourism venture, and had 85 people harvesting cranberries - this year he has bookings for 150. This is a way to connect consumers to what he does, as Massachusetts is the third most populous state, and everything they do is under a microscope: the neighbours aren't afraid to take a water sample from the outlet flume...
Poison ivy is a real pest around the edges of the bogs, so we were careful to learn what that looks like. It is such a small industry that no-one is investing into pesticides specific for their industry, and there is nothing that will kill the poison ivy that doesn't also kill the cranberries.
The day ended back in Boston with a metro ride to the oyster farm's signature restaurant, named of course, the Island Creek Oyster Bar. This was by far the hippest and coolest place we dined. It made me feel hip and cool, until I started to fall asleep….Damn that jet lag. Nevertheless, we had lovely company with Alex's friend Carol (a quilter), Rich from the Farm Bureau, and his wife Lou-Ann, and the inimitable Nathan and his wife Liz.
Nathan L'Etoile next to Richard Bonanno, President of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, opposite his wife Lou-Ann, and Liz, Nathan's wife at the end of the table
The Fourth of July dawned hot and sunny and we all headed out for a walk to check out the preparations for the night-time fireworks. Matty and Kara very rarely miss a day of walking, but I very rarely get one in (prioritizing blogging, can you believe, and talking with my lovely husband, easy to believe).
Security was out on the streets very early - no-one was taking any chances
People started lining up with their coolers and blankets at 9am to go down to the riverbank - we went to dinner and just strolled down at 9:15 pm and had an excellent view
The Boston Public Library
Then it was off to the Boston Red Sox v San Francisco Padres at Fenway Park.
We all tried Fenway Franks with the Lot
The fireworks really were impressive. I love a good fireworks display, and the Ekka and Kings Beach on New Years' Eve are very good, but there were crackers in Boston that I had never laid eyes on. Hats off to you Boston!