Letters from a Conservative Farmer: A Government Favor (for Once)
When we moved to Cape Breton in 1971 it was economically depressed, and it only got worse over the years. The federal government proposed various money-making schemes to put us on our feet, and I heard their proponents on the radio proclaim that if we did this (or that) we would see the end of welfare expenditure on the island. I actually heard that with these two little ears. Now I could tell you all about those schemes, what happened and how they came to naught, and depending on how I told them, the stories would be funny or sad, but I’d rather tell you about a plan that failed, but became a wonderful gift to us.
People whose land ran down to the water often had oyster leases, but we knew a place where there were no leases, and probing the shallow water with garden rakes, we got quite a few large oysters (a shell on my desk is seven inches long). There was an oysterman down at the end of the lake who made a desultory living, but there wasn’t much interest in oysters in the early ’70s. Then the government decided we should all become oyster entrepreneurs.
Like most government schemes, it seemed logical. Rafts consisting of 12-foot spruce saplings laid a foot apart across a metal frame resting on four foam-filled plastic floats, with coated wires suspended from the saplings, scallop shells a foot apart on the wires, would be anchored in the lake to catch oyster spat as it settled on the shells, and in three years the larvae would grow into salable oysters. Cape Bretoners had a jolly time in the preliminary stage that winter and spring, because all the unemployed, men and women, were well paid to construct the rafts. By June they were afloat, anchored about the lake.
There were several fallacies behind the project, but its doom was simple and obvious: to make it succeed required canny management, work which would not be remunerated until the oysters were sold. Simply anchoring a raft in the lake was not enough. It would have to be moved, first to a place where there would be plentiful spat, then to an area rich in nutrients, and sometimes it would have to be anchored near where a freshwater stream flowed into the lake, to flush off weeds growing on the oysters. Not a lot of work, but it had to be done, it had to be done right, and it wasn’t what people on the dole wanted to do.
Some people did their best, but at the end of three years the oysters were disappointingly small (as any oysterman could have told them at the start), and they had difficulty separating them from the scallop shells. Then catastrophe: the government wanted $5,000 for each raft! At once all interest was extinguished, no one would even look at a raft, and the government was stuck with hundreds of them moored around the lakeshores. A couple of years passed, until the rich summer people with yachts complained about impediments to navigation, so then the government hired a launch to haul all the rafts to remote places around the lake. There was a labyrinth of coves and uninhabited islands a mile or two from our farm, and a lot of rafts were anchored there.
Regarding the whole thing as a fiasco, I doubt if I would ever have recognized my great opportunity if I hadn’t met a neighbor at the shore unloading oysters from his skiff. Where’d he get them? “Off’n them rafts,” pointing across the cove. That afternoon found me paddling our canoe down another more remote cove. Tying up at a raft, I knelt on the poles, holding my breath, and hauled up a wire to see scallop shells crowded with oysters. By then, they been growing for seven or eight years, and it took only ten minutes to fill a bushel. There was an unexpected bonus: mussels clung to the floats, and I got those, too. Half an hour after landing at the raft, I was paddling home with two bushels of oysters and a big bucket of mussels.
I made that trip several times over the next few years. Late in the fall, I’d put a bushel or two down in the cold cellar, covered with wet seaweed, and we’d have oysters into the winter. But eventually the bonanza played out and the rafts finally sank to the bottom. I shall long remember those years as the only time in my life I’ve had enough oysters! *