Chris Warfel’s unlikely path to oyster farmer

Block Island, in Long Island Sound, is reached by a long ferry ride.

Block Island, in Long Island Sound, is reached by a long ferry ride.

We’ve just returned from a relaxing, fun vacation on Block Island, a beautiful little piece of land in Long Island Sound.

And though mostly we goofed off with our great friends, Rob and Lara, stories of  reinvention seem to pop up everywhere — yes, even on an island where about half the land is preserved open space and the only town on the island proudly calls itself the smallest town in the smallest state.

On last year’s trip to Block Island, John and I were enjoying happy hour cocktails on the deck at Three Kittens when a pick up truck stopped out front. The driver hopped out wearing waders, then went to the bed of the truck, hauled out a mesh netting of oysters and headed for the kitchen. I scurried to the bartender and asked how I could get some of those oysters. He said to wait about 15 minutes. Now that’s fresh.

This year I recognized the oyster farmer at farmer’s market and chatted him up about raising bivalves. I expected him to be a lifelong man of the sea but Chris Warfel, an engineer by training, came to raise oysters unexpectedly.

As Warfel tended a cooler full of fresh oysters in the shade under a tree, he explained that he’d gotten involved in a research project figuring out a way to use solar power to incubate shelled critters like oysters. When the project was over, he wondered what to do with the oysters and someone suggested starting an oyster farm.

Hank Shaw’s 2008 article in Edible Rhody tells his story: (Be sure to follow the link for Holly Heyser’s beautiful photo much larger than it is here, too.)

Chris Warfel, engineer turned oyster farmer

Chris Warfel, engineer turned oyster farmer, now runs Sun Farm Oysters on Block Island

Chris Warfel isn’t a son of the sea. He is a son of the sun.
The Block Island oyster farmer came to his profession not from a love of the Great Salt Pond or even Narragansett Bay but from a passion for solar energy.Warfel, like many modern farmers, must walk in two worlds to make ends meet. Most days he’s a renewable energy engineer.
On some, however, he is the proprietor of Sun Farm Oysters, one of Rhode Island’s smallest oyster farms.
Warfel stumbled into his alter ego as an oysterman when a colleague asked him to make a solar-powered water filter to keep a batch of baby oysters happy. Six years later, Warfel’s Sun Farm Oysters are one tiny piece of Rhode Island’s growing aquaculture industry.The value of oysters grown in Rhode Island more than doubled between 2005 and 2007, and it’s now a $1.5 million industry; Warfel and his competitors sold more than 2.5 million of the tasty bivalves last year.

Warfel told me sales are doing well this year — he hears that when the waitresses at Finn’s, a casual seafood restaurant right on the harbor, tell diners that the oysters are local, they’re excited to give them a try.

I can understand why. After our chat at farmer’s market, I was a woman on a mission. I ordered a half dozen oysters from the takeout window at Finn’s and ate them upstairs watching boats come and go in the harbor. The oysters weren’t cheap at $2.10 a piece and they’re tiny compared to the ones I usually gobble down in New Orleans, but they were very tasty, briny and smooth.

And I loved that my afternoon snack helped support Warfel’s path to life evolution. That goes down really well with some cocktail sauce.

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5 replies

  1. Tender thanks you representing details. It helped me in my mission

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