Visitors spill from cars and vans into the fertile acreage of Marin County, Calif., just north of San Francisco.
They stand attentively outdoors, in beautiful surroundings, to learn about production cycles and see what treasure grows from seeds. Then comes what they’re really here for: the tasting session.
Unlike most tourism in these parts, however, this pilgrimage isn’t to a winery.
It’s to an oyster farm.
From central California to Maine, the Gulf Coast to the Pacific Northwest, the oyster tour is becoming the new wine tour as consumers grow more knowledgeable about these salty mollusks and producers build brand loyalty — all in quiet waterfront settings and against the backdrop of people’s hunger to learn more about their food.
And there’s still time to enjoy one in the temperate fall, before they generally wrap up for the season.
“It’s pretty cool to eat something that’s just been pulled out of the ocean and sit next to that seashore while you’re eating it,” said Gary Fleener, science sustainability and farm education specialist at Marin County’s Hog Island Oysters, whose tours he runs.
Maine has launched the Maine Oyster Trail, with more than 80 farm tours, raw bars, and retailers up and down the coast, and an online trip planner and “passport” system to keep track of oyster farm and raw bar visits.
The first-ever Maine Oyster Festival was held in July in Freeport, with shucking lessons, tastings, food trucks, cooking demonstrations, live music, and local craft beer.
Hama Hama Oyster Company on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula annually puts on the Hama Hama Oyster Rama, which it describes as the world’s biggest subtidal party, with a “shuckathalon,” oysters, clams, a beer and wine garden, and live music.
Even oyster farms in Florida and Alabama have come out of their shells and started offering tours, which they see as a way to better their image in a region where oysters have a reputation for being muddier, milder, and less briny than their northern counterparts.
Even tour companies have started offering itineraries that visit one or more oyster farms in a day, often by boat and with wine and beer.
“You have the boat ride, you have beautiful scenery, you get a little education and you get lunch,” said Peter Milholland, the gray-bearded captain and owner of Seacoast Tours in Maine, who takes guests on a retrofitted lobster boat to oyster farms on Casco Bay from July through October, complete with a meal of oysters and crab or lobster rolls.
Demand is brisk. Oyster farm tours “just exploded” last year, Milholland said, beginning when pandemic-weary travelers were looking for activities to do outdoors and producers needed to find another way to sell their oysters while restaurants — and, in particular, raw bars — still were limiting capacity.
So popular are the tours at Hog Island, whose VIP version costs up to $300 per person, that the company started using the reservation system from its restaurants to manage bookings.
The Maine Oyster Trail has already gotten 20,000 website views and nearly 2,000 registered users, double the goal for the first year.
“There’s definitely an intrigue, a mystique around oyster farming. A lot of people have never seen an oyster farm,” said Afton Vigue, outreach and development specialist for the Maine Aquaculture Association.
Eighty percent of the available farm tours at Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury, which cost $100 to $150 per person, depending on the day, were booked on the first day reservations opened last year; this year’s tours began in May and run through the end of this month.
“It’s insanely popular,” said Island Creek founder Skip Bennett.
One reason is that people have become more sophisticated about oysters, discerning the subtle differences in taste and learning to order them by brand or region.
“We have this super-devoted fan base, the true oyster geeks of the world,” said Fleener. They further spread the word on social media, including about oyster farm tours, he said.
Since rebounding from overharvesting and disease before the millennium, and with the rise of oyster farming and the popularity of raw bars, US oyster production has reached 28 million pounds annually, worth more than a quarter of a billion dollars and growing by about 6 percent a year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“People are just eating more of it and wanting to see what it’s all about,” said Julie Qiu, an oyster expert and founder of the website In A Half Shell, which is all about oysters. “Oysters are just intriguing. Either you love them or you hate them, but it always starts a conversation.”
Increasingly that conversation intersects with broader curiosity about the origins of what people eat.
“There’s been this greater desire to understand where our food comes from,” said Allyson Blake, retail and events manager at Glidden Point Oyster Farm in Edgecomb, Maine, which also offers tours from May through October. As a particularly sustainable food, oysters offer “a way to talk to people about our stewardship to the environment that isn’t highbrow or pretentious.”
Martin Byrnes Jr. sees oyster farm tours as a type of ecotourism. “People want an environmentally immersive experience,” said Byrnes, who gives tours at Peconic Pearls, one of several oyster farms in the Noank Aquaculture Cooperative in Peconic Bay on Long Island. “They’re learning how nature works instead of spending money on material things.”
Some just want to go to a raw bar and eat oysters and drink champagne, “and that’s fine,” said Beth Walton, a New Bedford native who farmed oysters on Cape Cod and now serves as executive director of Oyster South, which represents oyster producers in the south Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. “But a lot of people want to see the farms, and know what’s the salinity and who the farmer is.”
Southern growers are turning to farm tours to change people’s perceptions. “There’s still that preconceived notion of, ‘Oh my gosh, warm water oysters? They must be big and muddy,’ " Walton said. But she said variety should be as much a selling point for oysters as it is for wine and beer. “People are blown away by some of the southern oysters. Why not give them a chance?”
Oyster farm tours are, in fact, a lot like wine and beer tours — and that’s intentional. “A lot of oyster tourism is holding hands with wine tourism,” Fleener said. Wine producers “are the masters of the food tour.” The Maine Oyster Trail is modeled on the Maine Beer Trail, Vigue said.
Just as with a winery or microbrewery, inviting customers to an oyster farm — and to taste the oysters — is a good way to build a brand.
“The more they’re slurping, the more they’re tasting, they’re beginning to pick up on the subtle differences,” said Vigue. And the next time those visitors are shopping for shellfish, Fleener said, “they’ll remember you.”
They’ll also better understand how hard oysters are to raise, starting in hatcheries as “spat,” or tiny seed-like larvae, and later moved to floating bags, cages, or baskets — and why they cost so much.
“People are amazed, who plow through a dozen oysters, at how long it takes to grow them,” Blake said.
But the best reason for a visit to a farm is because oysters “are grown in some of the most beautiful places you’ve ever seen,” Qiu said.
“You smell the tide and you hear the birds. It’s such an incredible experience. It’s a natural connection between the things you eat and the places that you want to go.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.