A pair of budding entrepreneurs learn to roll with the tides.
STORY BY CORINNE WHITING
PHOTOS BY STEPHANIE EBURAH
Sometimes inexperience proves a great advantage.
This seems the case for Set & Drift Shellfish founders Alice and Van Helker, who meticulously researched their oyster farm’s location for two years before starting a business. The final decision: tidelands at the northern end of the Toandos Peninsula in Hood Canal.
The couple’s land feels remote, with a tangle of berry bushes, ferns, and evergreen trees nearly forming a tunnel over their driveway. The trail leading to the beach winds through forest estimated to be 200 years old. On sandy tideflats in view of the Hood Canal Bridge and North Cascade mountains in the distance, Alice and Van’s oysters grow in bags, laid out in tidy rows.
With a “merroir” marked by flushes of ocean-fresh waters from the Strait of Juan de Fuca (by way of Admiralty Inlet), the end result has proven worth waiting for, with oysters that the Helkers describe as “savory and briny with a long finish of nori and melon rind.”
Unlike so many Washington growers, this couple didn’t have the business passed down to them.
“Given that we don’t come from a line of oyster farmers, we had no preconceived notion of what was ‘right’ in farming and what was ‘wrong,’” Alice says. “With this, we had no shame in trying out different methods, and thus established our own way of doing things.”
What they’ve created — and continue to refine — is a business built around the FjordLux oyster, their registered-trademark name for the bivalves they raise.
Because their products come from the country’s largest fjord outside of Alaska, the moniker pays respect to this body of water and the incredible natural forces required to create it. “Lux,” which translates to “light” in Latin, plays into the premium experience they hope to create for customers. “When you slip a FjordLux from its shell onto your tongue,” Alice says, “we hope the word ‘fjord’ helps bring to taste this natural beauty and wildness.”
The couple completed their first harvest in 2017, producing about 5,000 dozen oysters. They increased their planting this past summer and hope to double that tally. After much experimentation, they came up with a method that’s a hybrid between tumbling and growing in flip bags. The friction from waves and tides encourages the oysters to grow deep cups — perfect for raw slurping.
The farm’s location brings cool water all year long. This means Set and Drift has never closed due to high levels of toxins or bacteria, and the currents bring plenty of algae for their oysters to eat. While the farm gets ocean currents from Admiralty Inlet on the flood tide, it also collects nutrients from the Olympic Peninsula on the ebb tide coming up the length of Hood Canal.
“It’s still wild out here,” Alice says, “and there’s lots of fresh water running into the Hood Canal originating from the Olympic Mountains. This fresh water brings minerals with it and lends a unique, one-of-a-kind taste.”
The couple’s path hardly seems surprising, considering they both made careers of being on the water. They share a passion for being outside and marine environments. Van has a degree in biology, Alice in environmental studies. Both worked as officers aboard fisheries research vessels, and their jobs have taken them from the tropical Caribbean to the frigid Bering Sea. When they got married, they were working on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ship.
Alice grew up in Tacoma, and Van moved to Washington in high school, so they knew they wanted to settle in the Puget Sound area. “We wanted hands-on,” Alice says, “something we would feel proud of and stay connected with people.” Eventually, they settled on shellfish farming and started the operation from scratch.
“It took a while to even figure out how to be a shellfish farmer,” Alice says. Yet they were immediately received by a “very welcoming community and farmers,” including neighboring Hama Hama, a fifth-generation, family-run oyster farm with whom they now partner on events.
At first, Alice and Van thought about going back to school, but instead they chose to rely on their marine background and the research they conducted by visiting farms and hatcheries. “Through it all,” Alice says, “we took it one step at a time.” They found their way along each challenge by learning the environment, talking it through, and, she says, “being okay with knowing we won’t have all the answers on day 1 or day 30.”
With a strong desire to give back and the belief that maintaining upland is important, the duo donated 5 percent of their 2017 and 2018 proceeds to conservation projects. After their first harvest, they donated an acre of land to the Port Gamble Forest, and they remain committed to annual donations that give to causes they champion. “Without a doubt, every shellfish farmer is concerned about the water quality,” Alice says. “We choose to take it to another level.”
Alice reflects on their livelihood’s juxtaposition between “horrible, rainy, middle-of-the-night low tides” and the joy of being at a restaurant where people enjoy their oysters, visiting with chefs, and sharing experiences around this small bivalve. She adds that the farm’s successes have also been exciting for friends and family, who know what it has taken to get to this point. When speaking of the “beautiful village” that’s been with her and her husband every step of the way, Alice says, “Thank you doesn’t begin to cover it … all the deep gratitude.”
Set & Drift’s goods can often be found at Seattle venues like Westward, Coastal Kitchen, The Walrus and the Carpenter, and Bar Melusine. Their oysters can be bought directly off the Hama Hama website, too.
Alice says that what continues to drive them on a daily basis is what compelled them to start the farm: 90 percent of the seafood that the U.S. consumes is imported and often produced in poor conditions without stringent environmental regulations. “When I learned this,” she says, “it was really eye-opening.” Now they feel the push to produce locally and get people excited about this “awesome, incredibly beautiful, special thing that’s unique to the region.”
Corinne Whiting loves talking to passionate entrepreneurs who have taken giant leaps of faith — and are also doing their part to make this world a better place.