Cainnon Gregg of the Pelican Oyster Company in Tallahassee, Florida, is part of a flush of aqua culturists who are revitalizing oyster cultivation in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and bringing high quality seafood to the finest restaurants in the Southeast. Gregg is something of an oyster farming evangelist, working with everyone from restaurateurs to school kids to the Florida legislature on oyster education and paving the way for a new era of aquaculture in Florida.
Gregg is also a big fan of Opinel’s folding oyster knife, and it’s what he uses everyday on the farm and when he’s hosting events that require consistent, clean shucks. We asked Gregg why we should be making farmed oysters part of a responsible diet, and we got his pro tips on the best way to crack into these beauties.
How did you become an oyster farmer on the Florida coast?
It’s been about four years of work, training and getting myself situated to get into the business. We lease land from the State of Florida, areas that the state governs as an agricultural use zone. I have four and a half acres in the ocean that I farm on, and it takes a little while to acquire that. In that time period, I went to a school that focuses on aquaculture and took some classes, and traveled around and learned how other people were doing it.
I’m an artist and carpenter. There’s a restaurant in Atlanta called Kimball House, and in the South they’re leading the way on southern seafood, and they asked me to build their chef’s tables in the kitchen. They started inviting me to the stuff they were doing, and got me into being an oyster snob, and learning what makes a Pacific oyster different from an Atlantic oyster.
I ended up coming back home to Florida, and there’s oyster farms down here, and I was like, I wonder if I could do that. I thought it would be a hobby but it became a passion of mine, and I decided to make oysters my new career.
What’s the tradition of oyster farming in Florida?
Oyster farming in Florida is very new. Oyster farming in general has gone on since the Romans. Traditionally in Florida, they would be harvested wild, and places like Apalachicola are famous for those wild oysters, but due to a few different circumstances those oysters aren’t as plentiful as they once were. Alabama led the charge in the south to get oyster farming going and Florida followed suit. We had to change some legislation to make it legal here. Clams have been farmed here for a long time but when you farm clams it’s on the ocean floor, and with oysters you typically want them off the ocean floor, and we had to change the legislation to allow full water column access. My farm floats about eight feet off the ocean floor. There’s about one hundred farms that have opened up in the last two years.
I sell “Salty Bird” oysters, and I’m working really hard to make that a brand name. If you were to go to some restaurants in Savannah, Atlanta and Nashville, you would see my oysters by name on the menu.
How do you enjoy eating oysters?
My favorite way to eat oysters is right out of the water, but most people don’t have that luxury. In the wintertime when the water is icy cold and I can pull an oyster right out of its bag in the ocean, that’s one of the coolest things.
Shucking oysters can be intimidating. What’s the best way to learn how to shuck them safely?
Until you’re good at it, I recommend what’s called a table shuck. Get a wet washcloth, fold it a couple times so it’s about the size of your palm, and halve it over the oyster so it’s wrapped around the oyster with the hinge exposed. That way the knife either hits the table or the cloth, it never hits you. And then as you get good at it you can move to having that cloth in your hand, and as you get better and better you can just hold the oyster in your hand. If I’m shucking a bunch of oysters, then I wear a cut-proof glove on that hand, because you never know.
Do you always shuck from the hinge, not from the side?
Yeah. I think shucking from the side is more of a Northeast thing, I’d never heard of it until I met someone from Wellfleet (Massachusetts). Most pro speed shuckers are going to do it from the side, but I typically never go from the side. I wonder if there’s a difference in the [East Coast] oysters that makes it easier to do it.
It’s an honor that Opinel oyster knives are the only knives you sell on your website. What do you look for in a good shucking knife and what makes Opinel your favorite?
I like the Opinel because it’s so portable. It’s awesome because on my farm it’s something I can always have in my pocket. So that’s the main thing I really like about it, it’s small and it folds. It’s the only folding shucker I know, and being an oyster farmer, that thing is awesome.
It’s also a good conversation piece. At events, I always stick a few in the ice with the oysters and everybody grabs them and wants to talk about them. They’re like, “What is this?!” because it’s so different from other oyster knives.
I also like that it’s a little thinner and flatter with a wide blade, which is helpful to get a perfect shuck. That’s something that’s really important to me as an oyster farmer. Shucking an oyster perfectly is super important and I get really good shucks with an Opinel. I’ve seen oyster shuckers at restaurants that use Opinel because they feel the same way.
We’ve always heard that eating wild fish is more responsible than eating farmed fish. How does oyster farming fit into that?
The ocean is suffering from being overfished, and that goes for any species of ocean fish. But what we do, we only take out what we put in the ocean. I plant oyster seeds, so my business is net-positive for the environment. When you’re eating a farmed oyster, you’re literally saving the planet.
Lucky me! How does oyster farming save the planet?
We don’t take from the native beds, and while our oysters are there, they’re cleaning the ocean. An oyster filters 50 gallons of water a day, and I have a half-million oysters in the water. In the area, in the 3-4 years we’ve been farming there, the water’s getting clearer, and fish that haven’t been there in a few decades are coming back, because oysters are a keystone species: they’re the beginning of the food chain. And because they’re coming back to this area where there historically were millions of oysters, we’re repopulating the ocean with everything all the way up
the food chain. It’s almost like a coastal restoration, because not only is it bringing back the natural oyster beds and the fish that used to be there, it’s also creating jobs in an area that’s lost its waterfront industry.
And as far as protein per acre, you can get more with oysters than anything and you don’t have to feed it. They just eat algae, nitrogen, and everything that creates algae blooms. All those nutrients that cause algae blooms, they eat that and metabolize it into a hard shell.
The region of Florida’s coastline where Gregg and others farm oysters was devastated in October 2018 during Hurricane Michael, resulting in losses of 60-90% of the oyster crop. Visit Pelican Oyster Company’swebsite to purchase some merch and help Gregg keep his business running while he recovers from the storm and gets his Salty Bird oysters back in production.