Underwater Farmers: A New Producer Profile on Purcell’s Seafood
Purcell's Chesapeake Bay Oysters on the half shell.
Photo credit: FLF&LR member Kim Hutchinson. Used by permission.
“I’m a farmer. I just do it under the water,” says Richard “Rich” Harding, Vice President of Purcell’s Seafood. Our Fall Line Farms and Local Roots Members have been enthusiastic about the addition of this “water farmer” to our producer lineup. The crabs and oysters Purcell’s brings to our online market have sold well, so they fit right in as another great local food. But the folks at Purcell's Seafood are also a fit because of their commitment to good stewardship of the land . . .oops! . . .water in which they farm, not to mention their status as a family business that takes great pride in offering the very best food they can to those who want to eat both sustainably and well.
Purcell’s Seafood is less than 100 miles from Richmond, in the little hamlet of Burgess, VA. It sits right on the banks of the Little Wicomico River, in Northumberland County, where the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River meet. The closest town is Reedville, a fishing town that sits at the mouth of the Great Wicomico River. Seafood and fishing are woven tightly into community history there. Rich points out that “In the 1920’s and 30’s, we had the highest catch of Menhaden per pound in the country.”
“We work 400 acres of oyster grounds in the tributaries of the bay,” Rich says. “I’m the third generation to work this business. My son is the fourth. My grandparents started it in 1972, and it has been passed down to each generation since.”
Rich’s initiation into the family business came early. As a young boy, he’d go out with his grandfather, who taught him to catch soft crabs. “We’d get in the boat and go out around the shoreline,” he said. “The crabs molt in shallow water. Your eye gets trained to see them. Then you scoop them up into the boat with nets, all while being eaten up by mosquitoes.”
In spite of the mosquito and other, larger obstacles—like the problems with oyster die offs in the Bay in the 1980s and 1990s—Richard is enthusiastic about what he does. His deep appreciation for the environment he works in and the crabs and oysters he brings in are obvious when he talks about his livelihood. Like our vegetable farmers, he has an intimate relationship with the water he works and is something of a naturalist:
figured my wife out yet,” he laughs, “but I know the river!”
“We’re an oyster farm and shucking house,” Rich says. “We have both wild and farmed oysters. We started with aquaculture in 2008, and we’ve always done the wild oysters. In the 1980s and 90s, there weren’t a lot of wild oysters. Two diseases came in from outside—MSX and dermo. They’re parasites, not indigenous to the Bay. The oysters with dermo would get to be about 2” and then just die. MSX lives best in the waters with high salinity. Dermo is found more in the waters with low salinity. It was hard to keep afloat, but we worked with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and other organizations, and now we’re producing 2-3 million oysters a year. The bay got dirtier because of the diseases and the die offs. Now it’s cleaner again. Oysters actually clean the bay. A 3-inch oyster will filter 50 gallons a day. Both of these diseases are still in the water, but what’s happened is that the oysters have become more resistant to them. Now they’re really coming back.”
“It takes 2 to 3 years for oysters to grow to market size,” Rich explains. “You have to get in there and move them around, rotate them, to get the best results when you’re farming them. You have to cultivate the beds. When these oysters start out, the seed is about 1 millimetre in size—about like a grain of sand. Once they grow to 5/8 of an inch, we put them in cages and begin to work them. 30% of them grow really fast, 60% of them grow normally, and about 10% of them are slow. The largest ones take the most food. So you have to pull the cages up and move them around—sort them by size—so that the large ones aren’t taking all of the food from the smaller ones. You also have to put them in the right sections of the river. There are some places where the oysters grow fast, and some where they grow slowly. When they’re about 3 or 3 ¼ inches, they’re ready for market.”
“The old folklore is that you only buy or sell oysters in the months with an ‘r’ in their names,” says Rich. “Part of that is because they spawn in early summer, around the end of June, and the meat quality can be poorer then. It’s also because back before there was refrigeration, it was harder to ship them anywhere safely when the weather was warm. That’s because of vibrio, a bacteria that would grow in them and cause them to make people sick. Now, we have refrigeration, so that has totally changed. The bacteria don’t grow in cool temperatures, so the oysters we sell are plenty safe to eat any time of year. In fact, we have a paper trail on every oyster from harvest to the consumer.”
And speaking of eating oysters, Rich’s favorite way to eat them is the tradition where he’s from: “Oyster fritters. They’re kind of like pancakes with oysters in them. It’s pretty old school—the way people on Tangier Island used to eat them. They’re really good. You use Bisquick, just the boxed mix, and make batter like you’re making pancakes. You stir the oysters right into the batter and fry them, like blueberry pancakes, but better! I just put salt and pepper on them and eat them that way.”
For a more “newfangled” twist, Rich suggests using a muffin pan and putting an oyster in each cup. “You can add whatever you like,” he says. “Barbecue sauce, lemon, spinach, whatever you want. You can even do a different flavor in every cup. Then you bake them at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes. Delicious!”
Of course, along with the oysters, Purcell’s Seafood also brings us crabs—most recently the soft shells that coastal and central Virginians view as evidence that spring is actually here. The “soft crab” season lasts from mid-April to October, according to Rich, and we’re just past the peak of it.
“The first shed is the biggest,” he explains. “It starts in April and then slows up at the end of May. There will be a second shed around the end of June, first of July—then a third one in August. It will go on, to some degree, until cold weather. But the biggest season is in May. I have to give a shout out to a local waterman, Matt Smith, who goes out every day on the bay so we can have delicious soft crabs!”
Purcell's soft shell crabs, fried to perfection!
Photo by FLF&LR member Lisa Forsythe Sizemore. Used by permission.
As many of our members know, these soft shell crabs are delicious when they’re breaded and fried. What the Hardings do is dip them in an egg/milk mixture and then dredge them in some sort of seasoned flour. The next step is frying them to golden brown perfection. “Around here,” says Richard, “we eat them in sandwiches with white bread and mustard. That’s the local way. But you can put any kind of sauce on them that you like—mayonnaise, cocktail sauce, whatever.”
Along with the soft shells, our members have been enjoying the heck out of the crab cakes they’ve purchased from Purcell’s. As the comments have come in, it’s clear that Purcell’s crab cakes are a winner. In fact, one of our members posted this glowing review on Instagram last week:
Purcell's crab cakes were simply outstanding! We had, a few weeks ago, got suckered in with a display of crab cakes at [a local retail chain] . . . and when we sat down expecting a big joyful mouthful o' sweet crabby deliciousness we were met with the least-flavored concoction you could imagine! [The local retail chain] is now off my list for awhile. We bought Purcell's, and the taste of that crab was a whole different world! We are some lucky pups to have them and Wright’s [on Fall Line Farms and Local Roots]. Kudos to all who've brought [Purcell’s Seafood] to us!
Rich was thrilled with this comment and several others that appeared on our pages in praise of his crab cakes. Asked why his crab cakes are so much better than what you usually find in retail chains, he says, “We co-op with a local company, Little River Seafood, where these are made. Kelly Lewis, the person who runs it, has been in the business as long as we have. She’s our neighbor. She uses local Chesapeake Bay blue crab meat from local folks like us. She’s very well-respected, and there’s a really good ratio of crab meat in the cakes, with great spices.”
Rich Harding is genial, funny, knowledgeable, and very serious about delivering great seafood to our members. He does whatever it takes to run his family business well, so he’s a little bit farmer, a little bit folklorist, a little bit naturalist, and a little bit chef, along with being a good businessperson. We know that our members will continue to enjoy the great items that Purcell’s Seafood brings to Fall Line Farms and Local Roots!
You can follow Purcell’s Seafood on Facebook. If you’re hungry for seafood, you can find them on our Fall Line Farms and Local Roots buying pages at www.flflr.luluslocalfood.com.
 A term for shedding their hard exoskeletons. Purcell's crab cakes, baked for 20 minutes at 400
degrees. Photo courtesy of Becky Lillywhite.