A Clean Water Salesman
A Clean Water Salesman
BY MELISSA ULSAKER MAAS ’76
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” Robert Frost
Conor MacNair knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life from a young age. He caught the bug for oyster farming and surfing from his uncle, John Finger, who is a well-known oyster farmer in Napa Valley, Calif. In Middle School Conor was fascinated by the ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay and the push to rebuild the oyster population in Maryland and Virginia. Ecologically, native oysters are important because they create habitats for other species while filtering algae, sediment, and other pollutants—in other words, they help clean the water. For his St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes senior project, Conor chose to work at his uncle’s Hog Island Oyster Farm, every day for two weeks. That experience combined with his love of swimming influenced what he wanted to study, where he went to college, what he did while he was studying, the woman he fell in love with and chose to marry, and the fact that he now lives in waders and windbreakers, waterproof gloves and shoes, and spends a good part of his day up to his thighs in water—and he thrives on it.
Conor wasn’t exactly your average high school senior, any more than he is your average oyster farmer. In the 2011 “Traditions” yearbook, many seniors utilized a quote to say something about themselves and their SSSAS experience, but Conor spoke only through quotes. Heavy and lofty quotes that not only advocate a love of nature and living in a way that is true to your soul, but also reflect how focused Conor was on his life’s journey and his awareness of the importance of the decisions he was making along the way. Conor let Robert Frost, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman express what he was thinking philosophically and spiritually, and chose a photo that showed what he loved most, a smiling Conor standing in front of, what else, water.
Conor does live life deliberately, simply, and with confidence and gusto. As a co-captain of the varsity swim team at SSSAS he won the 100-meter breast at the 2011 VISAA State Championship, which helped the boys team clinch fifth place, the highest they’d ever gone in the annual statewide tournament at that time. Conor, Ferrel Atkins ’12, Kyle Draim ’14, and Cabell Perrot ’11 placed fourth in the boys relay. Not content to just win a state championship, Conor also broke the school record with a time of 1:56 in the consolation heat.
PURSUING THE DREAM
With swimming and oysters in mind, he decided to attend the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), which had a strong swimming program and the option to study oceanography. “I had always liked opening and tasting oysters and the culinary side as well as the farming side,” Conor says. “We surfed and delved into that culture with my uncle John. My cousins and I all wanted to work with him and hang out in California. It was a very attractive lifestyle.” When he packed up and headed to UNCW, Conor had a definite goal in mind and wasn’t afraid of the work it would take to achieve it.
“People called me the crazy oyster guy in college because it was pretty much all I talked about. If you gave me the chance I would talk about oysters.”
– Conor MacNair ’11
Conor only swam his first year of college, and needed something more than academics to keep him busy. Naturally, he looked to the sea and spent three years cutting fish. “I’d get up at 3 a.m. and cut fish from 4 a.m. to midday, then finish the day at school,” Conor says. “I fell into the fishing world because there wasn’t any oyster farming and I really enjoyed the opportunity to work direct-to-chefs, which is pretty much all we do right now. My whole day aside from growing oysters is constantly keeping up with chefs locally and around the nation and making sure that demands are met.”
At UNCW, Conor ran into a friend from Northern Virginia, Alyssa Pfannenstein, who was also a swimmer at Mountain View High School. They dated all through college and then joined forces to make Conor’s dream come true in North Carolina. “We started a company with a kayak that we had to push across without a paddle,” Conor recalls with a grin. “Then the Patterson family— Paige ’12 and Parker ’12 were in the grade below me at SSSAS—heard that I didn’t have a boat with a motor on it. They lent me a Carolina skiff that was just sitting unused in their yard. That was our first boat and we had it until Hurricane Florence sent a tree right through the whole thing!”
SEA OYSTER CO.
Joined by his brother James ’15, Conor and Alyssa launched N. Sea Oysters in 2017. Alyssa shares Conor’s dream and is a true partner to him in every way, as a wife, mother of Finn (3) and Sage (1), COO of the company, and working by his side in the water. When they married in October of 2019, their registry had one option, a donation to help them expand their “farm and family.”
Together, they did extensive research on possible farming methods and leased seven acres in Topsail Sound, south of the Surf City Bridge. Shellfish growers can apply for one or more 10-year leases that give them permission to grow and harvest shellfish in a particular area of the seafloor along the North Carolina coast. The “shellfish bottom lease” allows farmers to grow and harvest shellfish on top of a bed of oyster shells or rocks on the seafloor; the “water column amendment lease” allows them to anchor floating cages containing shellfish to the seafloor; and the “racked system lease” allow them to grow shellfish in cages on rack anchored into the seafloor. Conor’s system of farming requires a water column amendment lease and a racked system lease for his farm.
Conor’s oysters are cultivated using a mixture of Australian and French oyster farming techniques. He worked with SEAPA, an Australian company that specializes in aquaculture systems, to develop an adjustable long-line system for the farm, which allows them to move their oysters through a series of hanging baskets as they grow. They inspect the baskets every day and adjust their height in accordance with the tides. Raising and lowering the baskets allows for better management of the shell growth. Their process includes drying the oysters out from time to time, which helps create a meatier texture and allows the shell to form a deep cup. The oysters are cleaned multiple times in a custom-built tumbler, which also builds texture. In order to cultivate the best possible product, Conor and Alyssa are constantly refining their process and selecting their favorite and quickest growing oysters that look the best each year. They are currently in the second year of conducting this kind of selective breeding, which not many other farms are doing, because it’s fun for them.
“We plant every single oyster which comes from a hatchery,” Conor says. “Selective breeding grows good singles and we just grow single oysters.” Throughout the process, the oysters go through bags at different densities and they make sure the oysters within those bags are similar sizes to prepare them for market, moving them up and up and up. “We clean them, tumble them, and sort them at least eight times through a mechanical grader,” he continued. “It takes about a year and a half to get to market size. In the end, we’re looking for a two-and-a-half to three-inch deep cupped oyster that is nice and packed full of meat. Not like a really big oyster, just a good salty, delicious oyster that everybody can enjoy.”
AN EXPANDING BUSINESS
Since he opened N. Sea Oyster, oyster farming in North Carolina has accelerated. “When my wife and I started farming, there were only 14 other growers in the state,” Conor explains. “Now there’s more than 150. There’s been an explosion which is great for the water, but some farms will flourish and some won’t.” As of 2021, oyster farming was a $30 million industry in North Carolina. N. Sea’s oysters have been recognized as one of four of the nation’s top craft oysters by connoisseur and half shell expert Julie Qiu, and their “Dukes of Topsail Sound” oysters were also recognized by Garden and Gun in its state-by-state guide to the top 35 oysters in the South. Oysters are on more and more menus across the nation. Conor loves locations that are surrounded by lots of local farms. “I like to eat at raw bars that offer like 18 different oysters, because variety is the spice of life!”
It’s not always smooth sailing. A lucrative year for an oyster farmer means 50% of the crop makes it to market and weather can be N. Sea’s enemy. After hurricane Florence, Conor estimated that they had lost about 100,000-200,000 oysters in the early stages of growth as a result of the storm. Although the industry is heavily regulated and days of consecutive testing is required to ensure there’s no contamination prior to reopening waters for harvesting, a lot of misinformation surfaced that led to event cancellations. As a small farm, cancellations have a big impact on Conor and Alyssa both financially and emotionally.
Conor and his team harvest between 10,000 and 15,000 oysters a week. Fifty percent of them are shipped to Napa Valley, where the demand is heavy. He also ships to Birmingham, Atlanta, Charleston, and other Southern and mid-Atlantic locations. In addition to selling their oysters wholesale to restaurants, Conor and Alyssa have concentrated on growing their direct-to-customer market. N. Sea Oyster ships direct-to-door around the nation each week, and the orders increase heavily during the holidays. “Aside from our serious dedication to exceeding quality expectation, our direct-to-customer experience is what sets us apart,” Conor says.“It’s an honor to be part of people’s family traditions, and we take that seriously and send only the freshest oysters possible.” Conor, Alyssa, and four employees are a small, tight crew who grow, harvest, and pack the oysters with the utmost care, sometimes doing fun bundles and adding on to the oyster packages.
Another resource for increasing their direct-to-customer sales has been the local farmers market. Conor is aware that oysters aren’t to everyone’s taste. “Oysters can be difficult to sell because people either love them or hate them. We work hard to encourage locals to eat oysters. We love the farmers market because it’s a face-to-face way to educate people on how our oysters are grown, how they help the environment, how the industry is regulated, and ultimately get them to try one!”
DEVOTED TO SUSTAINABILITY
This past April they accomplished a new goal, opening their Oyster Barn. The Barn serves as their office location, a pick-up point for customers’ orders, as well as an event location. They have picnic tables and encourage customers bring friends and drinks and enjoy their oysters on site. “We hope to host four to six events per year,” Conor says. “We also cater parties (including some Saints weddings) and work with local chefs to do chef dinners.” In addition to their sold-out grand opening in the spring, Conor and Alyssa held a 4th of July barbecue, a “Shellebration” for National Oyster Day in August, and a party in September in support of the N.C. Coastal Federation and the three-year We the Water Initiative. Members of a local canoe club will paddle the entire N.C. coast to advocate for clean water, empower local communities, bring awareness of contamination, and protect the water.
“Between working for my uncle and studying science through the Chesapeake at SSSAS, I’ve been well aware of the push for oyster growing for a long time,” Conor says. “We all know oysters are the future. Another reason I jumped into oyster farming right out of college was the North Carolina Oyster Blueprint.” According to the N.C. Oyster Blueprint website, the blueprint is an action plan for the restoration and protection of oysters, by “fostering collaboration among partners, ensuring oysters in N.C. perpetuate a healthy and robust environment and economy.” Sustainable farming and being able to grow something that has a positive impact on the environment are of paramount importance to Conor. “Growing farmed oysters allows us to plant organisms that filter 50 gallons of water per day,” Conor explains. “It feels great to know that we help alleviate stress on the natural environment by providing more natural oysters to filter the water and by creating more oysters here on the coast. I always tell people I’m a clean water salesman.”
A friend from college who is a photographer brought Conor and Alyssa to the attention of Sperry. They were gearing up to launch their new Sperry Sport line and were hunting for water enthusiasts to represent them. Sperry is committed to protecting water and creating a more sustainable future. They make their products with recycled and eco-friendly materials through a sustainable manufacturing process. “We love that our sustainable commitments are the same as Sperry’s,” Conor says with a shy smile. “The connection happened by chance, driven by the fact that they were looking for real people to represent the new line—well that’s what we are, just real people farming oysters, surfing, raising a family, and living the good life.”
To learn more about N.Sea Oyster Co.,
and order some delicious oysters, visit nseaoyster.co.