Marine life: Former serviceman finds success, peace of mind on flourishing oyster farm

gmartin@islandpacket.comApril 8, 2012 

Frank Roberts looks on as Sean O'Connell pulls a cage filled with tubes of oysters from the Coosaw River on Thursday afternoon.

JONATHAN DYER/THE BEAUFORT GAZETTE

Frank Roberts doesn't look like a man on the precipice of culinary notoriety.

Wearing three days of stubble and a camouflaged cap tugged low over his eyes, he keeps a firm hand on the outboard motor of his weathered 20-foot boat, piloting it over the calm waters of the Coosaw River.

He doesn't look like a former Marine, either.

But looks can be deceiving.

The oysters Roberts has farmed for several years along the northwestern shore of Lady's Island recently won a taste test staged for several high-end restaurants in Chicago against competitors from around the country.

The victory catapulted his operation -- Lady's Island Oyster Farm -- into prominence among restaurants far more upscale than the local farmers markets he usually attends.

He hopes to start selling his oysters at those restaurants by the start of the summer and to get a higher price than local establishments offer.

"Trying to sell them here is like trying to sell ice to an Eskimo," he says with a laugh.

Roberts, 49, maintains any windfall won't change him. He's doing something he knew he wanted to do the moment he first laid eyes on the area as a young recruit at Parris Island, he says.

LONG-AWAITED SATISFACTION

While Roberts' days now are sun-soaked and stress-free, they haven't always been.

One October day in 1983, he left his barracks near the Beirut airport on a covert mission as a sniper.

Two days later, a terrorist drove an explosives-filled truck into those barracks, killing 220 Marines and 95 percent of Roberts' unit.

The tragedy redoubled Roberts' determination to return to Beaufort and start a different, more peaceful career as an oyster farmer.

He'd grown up along the East Coast, helping harvest oysters in Long Island Sound and the Chesapeake Bay, and knew the Lowcountry was a uniquely fertile area to farm them.

"In other places, they're grown in rivers flowing from cities to the ocean," Roberts explains. "Here, we've got these estuaries flowing from the Atlantic, so the water's much cleaner."

Through years of trial and error, Roberts came to perfect a unique method that produces large individual oysters -- "single ladies," he's taken to calling the ones from his farm -- instead of the clusters that dominate the local market.

He plants thousands of bamboo poles in the pluff mud to stabilize and nurture beds of young oysters, which he then plucks and places into tubes of thick plastic mesh.

The tubes keep out mud and predators and can be placed at varying depths to maximize the oysters' exposure to aquatic nutrients such as phytoplankton.

The resulting oysters, some of which Roberts and his assistant Sean O'Connell pulled from the Coosaw last Thursday, are plump and enormous.

"These are restaurant quality!" Roberts boasts, examining one in the afternoon sunlight.

That satisfaction pales, he said later, to what he felt when his brother Ross decided to retire from the Marines after 26 years and move to Lady's Island to help with the farm.

"It's nice," Roberts says softly, when asked what it's like to finally work with his brother. "We're having fun."

'AT THE TOP OF HIS GAME'

Several years ago, Roberts approached the S.C. Department of Natural Resources with a question: How could he get started farming oysters?

He laughs again as he recalls their response: "We were hoping you could tell us."

The department had been hoping to lease some of its land for that purpose, said DNR spokesman Lee Taylor, who worked with Roberts on his lease.

"Oyster farming helps stimulate the local ecosystem," he said, citing the purifying effects of oysters' filtration systems and the restrictions on shoreline development the lease would mandate. "It really doesn't have a negative impact."

Doing it successfully isn't easy, however, and requires years of patience and precision.

Consequently, Taylor says farmed oysters represent "no more than a drop in the bucket statewide."

The vast majority -- Roberts estimates 95 percent -- of commercially available oysters statewide are harvested in clusters from naturally formed beds.

Taylor said he's impressed with Roberts' operation, saying he's "at the top of his game" as a farmer.

Roberts shrugs off the compliment as easily as he dismissed the thought that an impending fortune might change his lifestyle.

"No matter what, I'm still going to be in this boat," he says, patting its side for emphasis. "Why would I change anything?"

Follow reporter Grant Martin at Twitter.com/LowCoBiz.

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Harvest keeps local shrimp farming industry afloat, Oct. 31, 2011

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