When Ben Gonzalez and Dave Daly decided to start an oyster farm, Dave knew exactly where he wanted to raise bivalves.
His great-grandfather, Thomas Daly, bought a large Southold property in 1919 to get his family away from the flu pandemic sweeping through New York. He put down roots, and over the decades the family extended and built houses all around him. Dave grew up sailing in Southold Bay, and riding the ferry across to Shelter Island for ice cream.
Dave and Ben picked out an underwater lease site in Southold Bay for their new farm in 2013, one of the 10 leases granted by Suffolk County for aquaculture that year.
“It seemed like such a reach to be starting an oyster farm, but the Bay feels like my back yard,” said Dave.
Now six years into the business, they have raised half a million oysters, and a few weeks ago moved to a new home on Shelter Island, up the hill from Chase Creek, and downhill from the golf course with the 7th hole out back, another great location.
Ben’s family is originally from Galicia in Northern Spain, but he grew up in the Dominican Republic and has lived in Buenos Aires and Texas for extended periods. After a 25-year career in marketing with Verizon, he retired. Not yet 50, Ben was ready to start a new business. “My family was extremely concerned when I told them we were going to be oyster farmers,” Ben said.
Dave had no experience raising shellfish either, but he did grow up around boats.
“Motor boats were a four-letter word in our house,” Dave said. “That classic postcard from the 1960’s you sometimes see of two men sailing in Southold Bay — it’s actually my dad and a friend.”
Even before they bought a house in Southold, Dave and Ben bought a 25-foot motorboat, a Maxum. “It’s very top-heavy, my dad calls it the floating Clorox bottle,” Dave said.
Ben told of the time they invited Dave’s dad to cruise with them. “He used to sail to Block Island every year, so we invited him to come with us on our motorboat. He showed up with all these charts and rulers, and when I said, ‘Mr. Daly, we have GPS,’ he said, ‘I don’t trust those things.’”
Dave added, “If our GPS ever failed, I don’t know how we’d get back.”
Ben was working for Verizon in New York and Dave was in the business school at NYU when they met at the Star Lounge in the Chelsea Hotel, where Dave had gone with group of NYU friends. They married in April of 2011 in Vermont, and it must have been a great wedding because, when same-sex marriage became legal in New York a few months later, they started getting requests from friends and family to do it again.
They adopted Paco, a snaggle-tooth chihuahua mix a few years later. He was a rescue. “A couple of families rejected him because he does bite a little bit,” Dave said. “I had a very ugly dog growing up named Squiggy who looked a lot like Paco.”
Ben said, “I had been hearing stories about Squiggy for years, and I finally saw a picture. He’s the ugliest dog I’ve ever seen.”
They only agreed to foster Paco for a weekend, but when they brought him in the adoption papers were ready, and they wouldn’t give him up.
Dave introduced Ben to the life aquatic when they started coming out to Southold on weekends, and once they found out about oyster growing, Ben went all in. With an education in oyster-raising courtesy of the SPAT (Southold Project in Aquaculture Training) program at the Cornell extension in Southold, “we got 1,000 oysters the size of a pinkie nail to grow or to kill,” Ben said.
In the third year of the SPAT program, they learned that Suffolk County had leases for commercial oyster farming. They got into the lottery, were picked to lease a spot in Southold Bay, and joined the nearby Shellfisher Preserve, owned by the Peconic Land Trust, where they operate the land-based part of the farm operation, including tumbling and sorting the oysters.
Once they invested in the lease, they needed equipment, including a boat with a crane to lift 1,000 pounds. They found a bayman selling a scalloping boat, and named the 19-foot Mako “El Pulpo,” or, “The Octopus.”
“The boat has been working these waters for much longer than we have,” Ben said.
In the first six years of production their company, which they named Southold Bay Oysters, had annual growth of between 20% and 40%. They’ve just launched a skincare product derived from nacre, the mother of pearl coating inside an oyster’s shell.
In spite of impressive growth in their first years of farming, sales during the pandemic have been down, as they have been for all oyster farms who depend on restaurants, special events, private parties and tours. Fortunately, the oysters, unperturbed by pandemic, are patiently growing in Southold Bay.
Dave and Ben, with their combined experience in finance and marketing, considered the craft brewing and winery businesses before latching onto oyster farming. Ben was dazzled by the eco-friendly nature of this form of aquaculture, and how it bodes well for the future of the business. “The more I learn about it, the more impressed I am with how powerful oysters are — how they clean the water and establish protective reefs,” he said.
For Dave, it’s more about a sense of place. “The draw for oysters for me was a love for the North Fork and a desire to be here,” he said. “My family used to be here through Thanksgiving and then close the house until Easter. Now there’s pumpkin season and Christmas tree season. The draw for oysters for me was a love for the place and a desire to be here.”
Ben and Dave — Lightning Round
What do you always have with you? Ben: My wedding ring. Dave: My wedding ring, and Paco.
Favorite place on Shelter Island? Ben & Dave: The Ram’s Head Inn.
Favorite place not on Shelter Island? Dave: Southold Bay, the beach. Ben: Orient Point.
What exasperates you? Ben & Dave: When people come out here to visit and bring a bottle of California wine.
When was the last time you were afraid? Ben & Dave: Coming back from Fishers Island on our boat, we got caught in fog, and had to try to get out of the way of a massive tanker coming through The Race.
What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island? Ben & Dave: Labor Day in West Neck Bay. We go to enjoy the beach and spend the night on the boat.
Favorite movie or book? Dave: “Jaws.” Ben: “The Others.”
Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? Ben & Dave: Kim Tetrault, director of the SPAT program.
Most respected elected official? Ben & Dave: Steve Bellone, Suffolk County Executive. He represents government that really works.