When Jeff Northrop graduated from Columbia in 2009 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and a minor in math, he started working at a hedge fund in New York City. Young, good-looking, liquid and single – what wasn’t to envy? But he wasn’t happy, so when his dad mentioned to him that he had recently found out the family owned the shellfish rights to the Mill Pond in Westport, CT and that maybe there was a business there, his ears perked up. Jeff did some research, a lot of research, and decided to try his hand at oyster farming. New York Oyster Co., which eventually became Hummock Island Shellfish, was born.
When I asked him how his family got the shellfish rights to Mill Pond, he said that they’ve had them since forever. I asked him how long forever was. He said it was a land grant from some king. I told him that reminded me of the time my son was playing football at Aspetuck and they practiced at the Helen Keller Elementary School in Easton. There was a farm stand across the street that I used to go to to buy fresh vegetables. One day I noticed a sign on the wall behind the cash register that said something like “Est. 1670”. I asked the guy if that was for real and he said yes: his family got the farm in a land grant. I asked him what his name was and he said Tom Sherwood. I said like “Sherwood Island” Sherwood, and he said yes.
I had just been up to Hyde Park a few months earlier and that land was also a “patent” from Charles II around the same time, so I’m assuming that the “long lot” that the Sherwoods own was also from Charles. Long lots were typically very narrow: 50 – 500 feet wide by sometimes 10 miles or so long. Jeff Northrop’s family is a descendant of the Sherwoods, so somewhere along the line they got part of it. Interesting but unexpected local history lesson for sure, especially on a beautiful early morning boat ride on Mill Pond. It’s worth noting that the Sherwoods, as well as most patent landowners, were Loyalists during the Revolutionary War, which is why their house is still standing when almost everyone else’s in Fairfield County was burned to the ground during the British scorched-earth march from Westport to Danbury back in 1776 or so.
Sidebar note: I’m not taking sides, especially since my family, Quakers on Nantucket at the same time, were pacifists, but also secret Loyalists because they just wanted to keep on whaling and The United States of America, literally and figuratively, was far away.
Jeff motored out and beached the boat on an island, Hummock Island, which has a little cottage on it his family owns that dates back to 1850, when a team of oxen was used to drag it out into the middle of the pond. It’s now the center of the harvesting operation, along with a “catamaran” he and his father recently built that serves as the Oysterplex.
Oyster farming is fairly straightforward – Jeff buys his “seed” from a shellfish farmer in Massachusetts, which are anywhere from ¼” to 1” long, and then places them in growing cages. The Mill Pond is so nutrient-rich that they take just 18 months to reach maturity, as opposed to the normal 3 years. At several intervals within that time-frame, he removes the oysters and tumbles them to trim up their shells (which promotes growth) and then sorts them into various sizes, since like-size oysters grow better together. He has been scaling the operation every year and is currently operating at about 15% of the capacity of the Mill Pond's potential.
The trimming and sorting tumbler is about to be replaced by a computer-controlled version that will use a laser that’s precise to within 1 millimeter. Jeff said his end-goal is to have as much automation and as little human interaction as possible – quicker, better, cheaper oysters the result. I said it reminded me of the company of the future I read about somewhere will consist only of a man, a dog and a computer. The man will feed the dog and the dog will keep the man from touching the computer.
How are the oysters you may be wondering. I assume fresh and delicious – first class, and served in the finest restaurants in New York for good reason. Except I don’t know for sure since we didn’t get around to tasting them. That’ll be another trip out to Hummock, and I’ll let you know how it shucking goes.
On the way back in, Jeff said the oyster industry is by and large happily stuck in the past – everyone for the most part doing things the way they’ve always done them – tradition, don’t you know, is a cliché for a reason. But Jeff said he’d like to bring the whole industry, not just the automation or computerization of it, but the whole concept of sustainability and the way we look at and interact with our environment and food and food production into the 21st Century. Which, given the almost unbelievable history of his family’s time in America, is a long, long way indeed.