Warwick and I looped around Wellfleet’s windy little roads, half remembering the directions from the Festival just months prior and the bumper-to-bumper congestion as the town roared in oyster celebration. This time, however, the town was sleepy; the ground frozen and patchy with snow. The beaches whistled only with a soft breeze. Seagulls flapped in the distance as they lifted oysters off the shoreline, flew upwards 20 feet and then dropped them, hoping for a cracked shell by the time they chased it back to the ground.
We hustled to keep up with the falling sun to Mayo Beach, and tumbled out of our car around 4:00PM, hopping around as we slid into wellies and adjusted our winter caps and gloves. The wind was piercing, but the mood was far less aggressive.
As we marched down the sand, the last fragments of sun lit the sky into ambers, violets and a red-coated luster, then cradled into the ridges of “Great Island” in the west. The low tide was slowly retreating, and the team of farmers, wrapped up in nearly-unrecognizable clothing, were systematically hauling gear and racing against time.
We crunched our way over shells and trickling bay water up to the team. A few warm waves greeted us, and a bundled man approached, cheeks pink from the battering winds. I couldn’t be sure if his smile was a greeting, or it just naturally froze that way from the cold. I assumed that whatever state, it was good intentions.
The farm is situated in the Wellfleet Harbor on tidal flats. Their position enjoys a tidal range of 14 feet per day, exposing the flats only during moon tides, so their schedules change often and force them to work around the daily changes.
Puffer oysters utilize a number of techniques, but one of their most unique concepts on the farm is how they catch and grow oyster seed as a nursery of their own. These hats, when stacked in rows and covered in cement and lime, provide a perfect nesting ground for oyster spat. When they grow to a certain size, they are shaved off the hats and bagged for further grow out. We got a good close-up as Jake gave us the initial overview of the farm itself.
Sharing a Shuck
Before hustling to The Well to get the full story, we stood in the icy waters next to a truck full of oysters. Jake chuckled, “you can’t come to an oyster farm with out eating a few, right?” He flicked through a couple and started shucking, all the while joking about his skills. I reminded him that I’m a storyteller, not a critic! He had nothing to worry about anyway.
Our hands were numb and mittens soggy, but the cold shells nestled right into the cups of our hands as we shivered and slurped the goodness. If anyone should feel painfully cold and deeply content at the same time, let it be on an oyster farm. Our lips iced over and salty crystals lingered until we arrived to The Well and licked the rest off with a heady beer.
Meet Jake Puffer
Jake Puffer is Irving Puffer’s son and year-round partner of the farm. He’s 6’4, has massive muscles and is very New England burly… Just kidding. I joked at the bar I would describe him as such. You can picture him however you want, but he’s a young, fit, oyster guy with the spirit of an adventurer.
At the bar, Jake began by recalling his early experiences with shellfish as a child.
“Even when I was little I would go out to the grant to visit my Dad. He would even give tours to my school classes. My parents owned a fish market farm stand that they later turned it into a restaurant. I started working with them through that evolution and began learning the seafood business. My Dad showed me the wild oyster spots when I was about 12-13 years old, and I would spend my time out on the flats with him for a little while, and eventually by myself. It’s like a trade. You need to be able to read the flats and know where they are, and what kind of oysters to look for.”
After school in Boston and a lot of wanderlust, the waters of Wellfleet fit right back in to destiny.
“I was still involved with shellfish in college but I did explore other options. I knew I wanted to travel, so once I graduated, I went to South America for three months, came back broke (as you do!) and started back at the farm. I then got more into the business and started to invest in the farm. I joined things like the Shellfish Advisory and I really settled into the place. People often dream of leaving the Cape, but it is a great place to live. Traveling helped me see that.”
Travel highlight? “The Salt Flats of Bolivia,” for one. Jake has also circumnavigated the whole globe in a semester at sea in 2009.
Personal Passion and Family Roots
How did he come back and integrate into the business? It was a combination of his own investment and familial partnership.
“When I was growing up, my dad would mostly do clams. He started out doing a lot of oysters but clams where doing so well (harvesting 10,000+/day), so he developed a really good business with them. I started to buy some clams, about 100,000 or so, and my dad gave me my own little mini-farm on his lease. When I graduated, I had some money saved up from doing well with picking wild shellfish that we started to build the oyster business together. He made me a partner and let me go on the grant. I wouldn’t be doing this without that opportunity and we just started growing oysters together. I bought 350 of those hats and we caught a couple million wild spat, and then really started to build the grant and expand from there.”
Jake continued to share about the legacy of his Father, Irving Puffer.
“Dad’s been doing this forever – over 40 years. It was like the Wild West when he started out. You could go to any restaurant and peddle your stuff. Now things are pretty regulated so it’s different. When he got the grant, he started buying up a lot of the land in Wellfleet and he really foresaw something in aquaculture. He was at the forefront in New England of people growing oysters and seed.”
It appears Irving had a mentor back in the day, as well.
“It helps having someone who can steer you along. My dad had a mentor. Howard Snow. He was a “poetic oyster farmer.” He was a poet, an oyster farmer, and a big environmentalist – pushing initiatives in Wellfleet. He ended up selling the grant my Dad’s on now.”
To continue his Father’s legacy, Jake has done some pioneering of his own. He was the first person to be awarded with the SPAT scholarship, which incorporated himself further into growing the family business. He now serves on the Board and is active in environmental efforts to protect and promote the benefits of the shellfish industry.
“I’m coming up on 3 years on the Board,” says Jake. “The Fest is a great thing for the town. All the hotels and restaurants fill up, and the rest of the year we are deciding how to best serve and support the industry. There have been some great applicants for scholarships as well – that’s a fantastic thing about SPAT. They are always thinking about the next generation. We are a small town with a big resource. It’s cool to be involved in its growth and give back to it.”
Pro’s and Con’s… or just Pro’s?
At the bar, I asked Jake to give me his pro’s and con’s of the business.
“My favorite part is the money… Just kidding! It’s hard work, but I’m proud of what I do. The oysters are cleaning the water… it’s a great product for me and the environment. It’s doing something good. And there’s a certain lifestyle to it. I can do what I want around the tides. I have a nice schedule and I’m able to live in Wellfleet!’
‘The whole thing of it is being outside. I don’t think I could do the office thing. I mean, I do spend a lot of time at the shop, too. Overall though, we do a lot of the labor and I’m grinding, but when I’m out on the tide, I feel very connected to it.”
His least favorite part? He couldn’t even think of one. We jokingly asked him if it was too long to narrow down, and it simply wasn’t the case. He finally came up with this:
“There are little things. Like, every day, I have to wash my truck. The salt water takes a beating on it, so it’s something I have to do…” But then Jake faded back into the positives. “Man, I don’t really have too many things I dislike. I actually love the seasonality of it…” And he was off again describing his favorite times of year.
What does the future hold?
After a few beers and a couple laughs, I asked Jake about what the future holds. For Jake, it is more about perfecting the craft he does day-in and day-out.
“I just want to keep growing the farm. Farming oysters – that’s my passion. I want to continue doing what I love, and doing it really well. I like the grind, and I love working with my Dad every day.”
You can’t beat that response.
After a few more chats over things like Jake’s phase of clams and Cholula, Warwick growing up in Papua New Guinea, and a horoscope talk about being born in August (all three of us- coincidence!?), it was time for us to travel home.
Jake insisted we come back in the summertime, and we must say, we’re pretty excited to see his anticipated newborn a.k.a. oyster farmer-in-training digging her little toes in the sand when we return.
Many thanks to the Puffer’s for their time, their passion, and their amazing product. Please give Puffer’s Wellfleet a follow @pufferoysters and visit their highly engaging website, www.wellfleetoysterandclam.com