New Jersey Food Journal

Monday, June 8, 2015

Oyster Farming: A New Start

Market-ready Oysters (Photo credits: Forty North Oyster Farm)
By Kimberly Dublin & Allyson Ricarte

He scooped the granola-like oyster seeds (baby oysters), cradling them with the hopes they’ll be ready in 2018. The seeds are about to begin a three-year journey in the tides of Barnegat Bay. But there is no bigger boss than nature, especially for oyster farmer Matt Gregg. “An entrepreneur never clocks out,” he said.

He may never be able to clock out, thanks to the swelling popularity of oysters and the resurgence of oysters at the Jersey Shore. For four years, Gregg has owned Forty North Oyster Farms. His business never runs on a routine but rather at the mercy of the ocean as his farm grows larger. In the spring, he eyes for crusty barnacle-covered oyster shells like the tips of grass popping for springtime.

“It all depends on natural variables,” Gregg said. “Right now I am making sure barnacles don’t cover oysters as we just had a set of new barnacle eggs. It’s a site specific endeavor that is rarely the same day to day.”

Gregg works on his boat when the tide is low, but even on shore, his hands are always tied. “It is difficult because I have to balance relationships with chefs that are used to working on a set schedule,” he said. “Other times I have to answer emails, build gear, go to meetings, take care of the paperwork side of things.”
But nature’s bad days are the busiest, crunching as much time as possible, he said. “When the weather is bad and we get behind in work we have to harvest, sort, maintain and deliver all in one day,” he said. “These are the sun-up to sun-down days and they’d be longer if possible.”

As his thumb-sized oysters bobbed in the murky ocean, Gregg also commits his time to preparing market-sized oysters for local chefs. “Two things (to indicate a good oyster): length and cup,” he said “If it has a nice deep cup and is over 2.5”, then it’s ready to go. We sell smaller oysters than most. It seems to be what the market is demanding.”

Gregg’s relationship with those chefs in Philadelphia, New York City, and New Jersey is just as important as his relationship with the environment. “I would like to set an example as someone who improves our environment while creating commerce,” he said. “It's always one or the other, but why can't it be both? Well, it can.”

To Gregg, the oyster provides an economic service. “Every cent I spend to grow an oyster goes into the local economy,” he said. But the oyster also provides its service environmentally.  “They create habitat and remove excess nutrients from our natural waterways,” he explained.

Gregg’s intense knowledge of oysters grew from working in an oyster farm in Rhode Island, a work that he loved. Educated in the University of Rhode Island, he earned a major in Marine and Coastal Policy with a minor in Aquaculture and Fisheries Science. He then decided to start something similar in New Jersey, after enduring the excruciating permitting process in New Jersey. “It takes way too long to access the permits, licenses, land to grow and sell oysters,” he said. But once he had access to those permits, Gregg has been going strong for the past four years.

The oyster industry’s decline in the New Jersey resulted from the destructive combination of “oyster disease, degradation of environment and over harvesting,” Gregg explained. In this case, much of the oyster population was decimated by “a protozoan parasite called MSX,” according to Wendy Plump in The Pearl of New Jersey for Rutgers Magazine. This caused New Jersey to no longer be called “the oyster capital of the world,” which various websites such as Cumberland County’s official homepage reported that the state used to be home to such a title. Gregg, along with many oyster farms in New Jersey, is slowly trying to gain back that title.

The revival of the oysters is important to the Jersey coast, their presence offering more than just environmental and economic services.  Oysters have been making a huge impact in the experience of eating. “When people come to the Jersey Shore, they want to eat food from here. It's a romantic notion that is nearly forgotten, but the chefs and restaurants we work with, they get it. So do their customers,” he explained.

 “Oysters are a social food, which is why they're so popular in metropolitan areas,” he observed. “Happy hour oysters in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Jersey City, Philadelphia are a huge social experience and a great opportunity to taste something so simple, but so delicious. Oysters, beer, friends.”

Kimberly Dublin is a senior journalism student at Rutgers University. She is a contributor to and is an editorial intern at

Allyson Ricarte is a student at Rutgers University, studying journalism and media studies, art history, and digital communication. She hopes to work in Broadway production.