River to Restaurant

When the sun comes up over the May River in Bluffton, South Carolina, brothers Austin and Andrew Harter and their uncle, Brad Young, slip into their 25-foot SeaArk aluminum boat to start the day as oyster farmers. The boat has been customized by local welders and craftsmen so they have the perfect layout, optimizing space on the deck to haul up cages to check on the growth, harvesting the oysters only when they have reached perfection.

Brad and his wife Olivia, along with Austin and Andrew Harter, own May River Oyster Co. Together, they maintain an oyster farm, harvesting 85 percent of their oysters from these riverbanks, gathering from the wild only when necessary. They are vigilant about caring for the river which sustains them.

“Besides producing delicious oysters, our farm contributes to the health of the May River in a significant way,” Young says. “Maintaining wild beds of oysters using sustainable practices and raising thousands of new oysters in the river generates a filtering capacity that results in a flourishing environment for many marine species. A smile comes to all our faces when we see a river teeming with life that we have played a part in helping to preserve.”

Harvesting May River Oysters (Courtesy May River Oyster Co.)

Just across the river at Montage Palmetto Bluff, Chef de Cuisine Anthony Guiliano is reviewing the menu for the Octagon and Canoe Club where local seafood and produce take center stage. Guiliano has been cooking with these oysters since the company got off the ground.

“May River Oysters in particular have a mild, sweet and not overly briny flavor. The high salinity of the river is part of what gives them their unique flavor,” Guiliano says. Montage Palmetto Bluff forged a partnership with the local oyster farmers when they first opened their business in nearby Bluffton in 2014.

Now, Young says they have a waiting list of at least 12 other restaurants in the region who would like to buy their oysters. And, while growth is in the cards and they are already halfway to their permitted maximum haul, Brad has another full-time career in logistics while his nephews work the business 365 days a year. Recently, they lobbied hard to get a summer harvest approved and, now, while under strict regulations, can farm through all 12 months. An Excel spreadsheet tracks growth, health and location of each of the 225-plus cages, allowing the farmers to control the crop’s maturity. “The heaviest nutrients are in the top 3 feet of the water, so using new floating gear, we can harvest in an average of 10 months what used to take up to 18 months when the cages would sit on the river bottom,” Young says. “We truly value our relationship with [Montage] Palmetto Bluff,” he says. “The communication with the chefs to us is second to none. They keep us apprised of guest surges they see coming, which is a tremendous bonus to us for meeting their needs. We feel the bond between the two companies is special because we are able to deliver something no one else can. Same day, river to restaurant.”

By Sue G. Collins

Feature image: May River Oysters served at Montage Palmetto Bluff (Photography by Anne)