With N Sea. Oyster Co. and Oyster Barn Connor and Alyssa MacNair are keeping our waters clean, feeding people tasty oysters and contributing to area communities.
Raised in Chesapeake, Virginia, Conor MacNair is a second-generation oyster farmer whose uncle owns and operates a farm on the West Coast. He and his wife, Alyssa, considered moving to California to work with him, but that plan changed when Conor discovered a locally harvested green-gilled oyster as he finished his studies at UNC Wilmington.
“At that moment, I knew we had to put a farm here,” he says. “The area felt like it was a completely untapped resource.”
Conor’s excitement over the green-gilled oyster stems from the fact that these particular bivalve mollusks only grow in the presence of Haslea algae. Highly sensitive to impurities in water, the algae comes and goes within a week in many places, hardly long enough to dye the oysters’ gills. However, it is known to grow for months at a time in the coastal waters of France and, as Conor was surprised to discover, North Carolina.
Almost immediately, the MacNairs began their Fall 2023 69 quest to cultivate the perfect oyster. It was a humble beginning almost 10 years ago, but soon the business began to grow. In 2020 they purchased their current location: a tree-lined plot along a quiet country road only minutes from the busy intersection of N.C. Highway 210 E. and N.C. Highway 50 at Surf City.
Maintaining a positive impact on the environment is a big part of the N Sea Oyster Co., which operates under the three tenants of sustainability: good for the planet, good for people and good for profit.
“Our oysters filter 50 gallons of water per day,” Conor says, “which is spectacular for the water and benefits all of us. We limit the number of boats on the water, reducing the amount of gas going into the product. We ensure our employees are well paid and that they have a good time. And by focusing on streamlined farming techniques, we can turn a profit on making great American protein.”
A CULTIVATED CRAFT
On track to harvest approximately one million oysters this year, N Sea Oyster Co. is considered a small farm by industry standards. Nevertheless, the MacNairs have big goals and consistently try new things to enhance sustainability, improve productivity and increase their bottom line.
Toward those efforts, they replaced their traditional French-style trellis system with the newer Australian longline system. The benefits were many.
“We found that for where we’re at, the multiple 300-foot-long lines out in the water work best,” Alyssa says. “We like it because the lines are adjustable, allowing us to easily lower or lift the entire farm.”
This means that rather than having to manually rotate and dry out the oysters every day, the lines can be dropped so the tides can rock the oysters and then lifted so they can dry naturally.
“We can go through the whole farm and look at everything in one day, setting hands on every group of oysters on every single line,” Conor says.
This system also enables them to harvest, grade and store the oysters in a cooler in less than two hours, a timeline well below the traditional four hours.
The MacNairs cultivate two types of oysters to ensure year-round harvesting: Dukes of Topsail Sound (spring through fall) and Divine Pines of Topsail Sound (fall through spring).
All of Conor and Alyssa’s hard work and innovative, sustainable farming isn’t going unnoticed. They’ve recently been approached by some big-name brands including Sperry® and YETI® to participate in some of their campaigns.
COMMITTED TO THE COMMUNITY
While the MacNairs are proud of the fact that their oysters are shipped around the nation and served at some of the finest restaurants in cities like San Francisco and Atlanta, their primary focus is serving the local community.
“We believe the people who live here should have the most access to the oysters,” Conor says.
Alyssa agrees: “We obviously want people traveling here to enjoy the experience, but we really want locals to feel like this is their pride-and-joy spot. We’re trying to really make the community proud.”
The couple delivers oysters directly to area raw bars. They also enjoy interacting with people and showering them with hospitality, whether it is educating shoppers about oysters at local farmers markets, serving guests from their mobile raw bar and grill at catered events, or showing patrons how to shuck and grill the shellfish at one of their Oyster Barn dinners.
At the Oyster Barn dinners, they support fellow farmers and fishermen by purchasing local produce and fresh fish to use in their signature recipes.
“I don’t know many other people who personally drive around picking up their ingredients from the makers and creators,” Conor says, “but that’s what we do. Our ingredients are fresh and high quality; you can taste the difference.”
Conor says there’s nothing better than watching somebody eat and enjoy their first oyster. “Ours are perfect for that because they’re small, approachable, very salty and something you can chew on. It only takes one oyster to be hooked for life.”
Want to go?
The Oyster Barn at N Sea Oyster Co.
674 Old Landing Road