Cherrystone Aqua-Farms, a Virginia pearl on the Eastern Shore

For the Ballard family, oysters are a family heirloom.

The 125-plus-year Ballard legacy has been intricately linked with the history of oyster harvesting on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Here, saltwater oysters are known to have been in the Chesapeake Bay thousands of years before European settlers established a permanent colony in Jamestown, Virginia. Both indigenous people and Europeans not only used oysters as a food source, but they also utilized their shells as tools and for building and infrastructure materials. By the mid-1800s, the oyster harvesting industry was well established in Virginia coastal waters. In 1895, Cherrystone Aqua-Farms was founded by the Ballard family.

Chad Ballard is the current custodian of his family’s legacy, one that he says, “requires incredible fortitude.” Issues of overharvesting and disease nearly crippled the oyster population in Virginia, but collective efforts among harvesters, researchers and environmental groups brought oysters back from the brink.

The introduction of cultivated, farmed oysters over the last 50 years lessened the dependence on wild oysters, allowed the population to rebuild and helped filter the water of the bay. Ballard says cultivated oysters are, “environmentally benign, or beneficial,” as they encourage a thriving ecosystem without removing naturally occurring oysters from the Bay floor.

In 1983, Cherrystone began its clam and oyster hatchery business to produce oyster “seed” (the term for fertilized oyster eggs and immature oysters), and, in 2008, the company added cultivated oysters to its venture.

Today, Cherrystone Aqua-Farms is a global leader in the production and harvest of crassostrea virginica, the eastern U.S. species of oysters raw bar aficionados have come to crave and adore.

The taste of the Chesapeake Bay can be delivered to your table from Cherrystone’s online direct-to-consumer program which was launched in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. They offer clams and five different oyster varieties, plus their “curated collections,” assortments combined based on their flavor profile or size. Cherrystone also sells oyster and clam shucking tools for ease of preparation. Depending on the time and day of the week you order, live oysters and clams can be on your doorstep within 24 hours.

From seed to shell

In the pristine Cape Charles, Virginia, facility, the Cherrystone aquaculture operation is nestled on the gritty banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Every day Carolina-style skiff boats depart the floating docks mere feet from the packaging facility for the crystalline waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its contributing creek system. The 14-man oyster crew checks floating rack systems that serve as artificial habitats for oysters, determining when oysters are ready for harvest.

Before the harvest comes due, the oyster journey begins in the hatchery.

Greg Coates has worked just over 13 years at Cherrystone. As its hatchery manager, Coates runs the oyster breeding program and produces millions of oyster seed each year. Like Ballard, Coates’ family harvested oysters and clams in the wild, and he is the fourth generation of Coates men to make a career on the water. “It’s part of my background. It’s just what a lot of my friends and family do,” he says.

Coates brings in oysters called “broodstock” for controlled spawning to reproduce new oysters each October. Large tanks filled with water to mimic early summertime Bay conditions house fertilized oyster eggs for 12 hours before they develop into swimming larvae. They will grow in the tank for about two weeks with water changes every other day. The oyster seed is moved into a bottle system that introduces protein- and lipid-rich algae blends for quick enrichment and nutrition. Coates simplifies the highly scientific process by equating the various stages of the oyster hatching program to phases in a child’s life. This stage of the process, he explains, is akin to preschool, where oysterlings are provided beneficial, concentrated attention (by way of algae) as early as possible to help them thrive.

“Probably the most important thing we do is develop the food source. Without a good-quality food source, we wouldn’t be able to produce anything,” Coates says.

He and his team currently focus on eight varieties of algae, grown in greenhouse structures attached to the hatchery. They make their own filtration and collection systems — including shaping and sealing their own clear plastic bags — to grow and harvest algae. The bags hang like columns of phosphorescent light in shades of citrine, olive, chartreuse and emerald. They are blended together to provide food for the growing oyster seed. “Even though we produce quite a bit of algae, it’s still very incomplete compared to what oysters will get out in the wild,” Coates says.

“After 2 weeks in they’ll move from the bottle to an indoor “upwell system” which pumps heated seawater and algae to them. They’ll grow to be two to three millimeters after two to three weeks before moving to an outdoor upwell system. Outdoors, Mother Nature is feeding them,” Coates explains.

At about two months old, these oysters are ready to graduate from the hatchery program. Some are deposited into the Bay for Cherrystone’s own harvesting grounds, and others are provided to members of the Cherrystone cooperative harvest program to be grown in other parts of the Eastern Shore or sold to oyster harvesters and aqua farms along the Atlantic coast.

From here, Bubba Frisby, the oyster farm manager for Cherrystone, and his crew take over. Bubba grew up just down the shoreline from Cape Charles in the town of Oyster, Virginia, and has been involved in oystering and the fishing business since he bought his first $5 minnow trap as a kid, growing his minnow bait operation to 13 traps by the end of that summer.

He came to work at Cherrystone at age 17 in 1994, harvesting clams by hand using a bull rake under the guidance of clam farm manager, Jeff Conrow. Besides oysters, Cherrystone also produces clam seed and is one of the largest producers of littleneck and middleneck clams in the U.S., processing live clams through a “grit-free” state-of-the-art closed-loop filtration system that recycles Bay water. Frisby later became the head of the oyster program when Cherrystone decided to invest in cultivating oysters on a commodity scale.

Frisby is responsible for the husbandry practices of the oysters, deciding where to place bottom-feeding oyster cages that rest on the Bay floor and floating stiff net “bags” that are suspended by small pontoons to nestle just below the surface of the water. He and his team regularly check the oysters for size, development and any signs of disease or decay.

Healthy waters, happy oysters

Cherrystone’s oysters can take anywhere from nine months to two years to be ready for harvest once they are deposited into the Bay. Some will be harvested earlier or later depending on their size to accommodate market demands. They pass through a tumbler which sorts them by size and separates those ready for harvest from those still needing time to grow. The tumbler also chips away at the delicate bill — or edge — of the shell where new growth happens, which encourages a stronger shell and a deeper cup that leads to plump and juicy oysters.

As much as Frisby understands the oyster, he also has a deep connection to the water and can sense when a change in the water, from temperature and tide to salinity fluctuations, will alter the flavor of the oysters. He recounts times when he uprooted and moved entire farms and relocated them to improve the quality of the oyster. “Our oysters can taste different a half a mile away. They may look close to the same because the same husbandry methods happen, but the taste and the texture is going to be a little different each day,” he says.

Those husbandry practices contribute to merroir, the term granted to how characteristics of the water present in the flavor of the oyster. (The term terroir is more familiar, as related to agricultural processes, especially in viticulture where the characteristics of grapes in wine change based on appellation, soil and climate conditions.) The flavor of the sea is immediate when eating a raw oyster, as there is no intermediary process that alters the taste. An oyster can be plucked from the water, shucked and consumed in a matter of moments. While all of the oysters produced by Cherrystone (and most other harvesters on the Atlantic coast) are the same species, the unique traits of each are a result of thoughtful husbandry, leading to brands of oysters like Cherrystone’s Chunu, Misty Point and Chincoteague Salts, among others.

Coates says this is why good water health is critical. “You are tasting the ocean or the environment where oysters are from. It’s something we want to keep, to eat a raw oyster and taste the ocean, so please don’t screw up the ocean,” he says.

All Cherrystone oysters start in the Bay, but Frisby and his team will move selected oysters to the ocean-side of the peninsula to give them their cherished salty flavor. By law, these oysters must be in ocean waters for 30 days to be counted as seaside (instead of bayside) oysters, but Cherrystone doubles that timeframe.

Frisby says, “Cherrystone isn’t about the numbers, it’s about the quality. When you are farming for oysters, it’s just in your gut. I have a passion for oysters. It is more like an artistry, more like a craft. With an oyster, the more you handle it, the more tough love you give it, the more attention, it will respond,” he says.

Benefits beyond cultivation

Cultivated oysters also benefit those who still harvest wild oysters for profit or hobby. Dennis Latimer, an Eastern Shore resident whose home looks over the glistening waters of the Chesapeake, says that the advocacy efforts of the oyster industry have cleaned the once-polluted waters of the Bay which has allowed wild oysters to repopulate. “I’m glad to see that for the neighborhood. It gives these people income. It’s a good thing for the shore,” he says.

During the oyster season, Latimer goes out on his boat at low tide harvesting five to eight bushels at a time by hand. He sells them to restaurants and private individuals in the area. “It’s like finding free money,” he says. Each season he collects 250 to 300 bushels with about 250 oysters in a bushel. The season starts on the first of November and ends in March when the tides change.

Oyster harvesting helps locals earn extra income in an area where most people are involved in agriculture and aquaculture. Local hobbyists are vital to healthy oyster ecosystems, and they self-monitor their harvesting. If Latimer finds a patch of immature wild oysters that aren’t thriving, he will relocate them to a spot closer to an ocean current where he finds oysters abundant and flourishing, which gives them better salinity. Latimer estimates, “For every bushel you plant, you get three back.” He takes great pride in helping the oysters reproduce faster and giving them a better life. “I just love watching them grow,” says Latimer.

A siren call home

After a job in investment banking, the water’s siren song, the region’s oyster history and his family’s contributions to the local industry called Ballard back home. Ballard says he was never required to work in the family business. 

“I don’t know if it’s the pride of ownership or the identity of your family in a way, but, in oyster-centric regions, you will find a lot of people who have done it their entire lives. We always had a different family philosophy. It was, go do something on your own, and if you want to, you can come back. It was freeing having the confidence to know that you can do something else,” says Ballard.

Like other families pass down a treasured recipe, the Ballards have homed in on a formula of patience, attention to detail and a dedication to preserving a region’s history, the health of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and the oysters it supports for generations to come.