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Petkau's World

Written by: Anne DeGrace    
Published by: West Kootenay Weekender (May. 14 1999)


"The big thing for me is that it's very much a lifestyle which demands and rewards hard work. You don't count your hours; you go to work very, very hard, and you gain a deep satisfaction. It's the lifestyle I've grown up with, and what I want to pass on to my family," says Petkau. "Why, then the world's mine oyster," said Shakespeare's character Pistol in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Brent Petkau might say the same. He might also say, "the oyster is my world" and be absolutely right.

"The Oyster Man" attributes his acquisition of an oyster farm on Marina Island, near Cortez Island, to serendipity. But when the opportunity presented itself a year and a half ago, it felt right.

"I always thought I'd be a farmer," says Petkau. Who grew up on a Manitoba farm where there was a direct relationship between the growers and the buyers. So he comes by the philosophy of being accountable for what you sell honesty. And he sees strong similarities between his family's farm on the prairies and the inter-tidal pools he farms with his Nelson family: partner Suzanne Dueck and their small children, daughter Hannah and baby Xavier.

"The farming ethic is still there: you wait for the crop, you have faith in what you're doing," he says, noting that oysters mature in four to five years . somewhat different from a wheat crop. But, he admits, "I've fallen into something that's grown into a labour of love for me."

But a Nelson-to-Cortez commute?

"I'm living in the two most beautiful places in B.C." he says, but adds that he views the Kootenays as home.

Summers are spent on the island, but when the family is living in Nelson, Petkau visits the farm on a regular basis.

It takes 18 hours and three ferries to reach his five-acre farm, which grows Royal Myagi oysters and Manila clams. There, more than 300,000 oysters doze in the salt water.

Petkau looks after business: he may set bleached shells in Pendrell sound to attract oyster spawn for "transplanting" in his own field; he'll grade and move oysters to better growing sites; he'll dig clams; and he'll harvest 200 dozen or so for his regular customers and new oyster recruits. Then he'll drive through the night, and 18 hours and three ferries later, set up at the Tree of Life Farmer's Market at Cottonwood Falls with a truck full of live oysters.

"Categorically, my customers say they won't touch oysters in the regular retail markets," explains Petkau.

Those are the converted, or course. There are plenty who just don't know, according to the Oyster Man.

"Anywhere east of Vancouver, people have no idea what good, fresh oysters are like."

So Petkau sees himself as a teacher, and this is a big part of his business. He's enthusiastic about oyster biology, oyster recipes, oyster lore, oyster politics.

Yes, politics because most B.C. premium oysters leave the country to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Hawaii-as if they've sprouted legs and run. It's Petkau's personal crusade to persuade them to stay here, because "we Canadians should keep the best"

Petkau admits that oysters are not especially intelligent, "but the people who eat them are highly evolved, and definitely adventurous," he says with a twinkle. A large, bearded, Kootenay/Cortez type, Petkau has eyes that twinkle most of the time when he's talking about oysters.

In fact, he insists, people who but oysters tend to do so with that very same twinkle. Oysters, he says are a social food, and the people who place advance orders or who come to his market stall are already thinking ahead to the barbecue, the anniversary, the potluck. You can throw live oysters on the barbecue, or eat them raw. Oysters Rockefeller, says Petkau

smothered in a garlic, spinach, and Pernod sauce and grated Swill cheese before a gentle oven baking-are out of this world. Then there's oyster mythology: oysters, since the time of the goddess Aphrodite, have been considered an aphrodisiac. This too, my account for the twinkle.

Says Petkau, "Who talks about the sensual appeal of your food when you're filleting a fish?"

They're also the "ultimate health food": high in Zinc, high in protein, low in calories, and good for the heart. As with any grower, the waters at Petkau's farm undergo rigorous weekly testing by the Department of Fisheries.

Petkau sees himself as more than just a farmer. He likes every aspect of the business, from the dead-of-night, dead-of-winter low-tide harvest to the to-your-door presentation, education, recipes and the satisfaction of handing live, fresh oysters to the customer without a middleman in sight.

It's become my mission statement; to provide people in the Kootenays with a direct link; That's missing in this day in age. You say, 'where did this chicken come from? These eggs?' I want to keep people in touch with the source of their food."

It's a natural managed growth industry with enormous potential, according to Petkau, but not without it's dangers. There are some 60 oysters farmers on Cortez Island, and they all must deal with the regular risks peculiar to the occupation.

In wintertime, the favourable tides are between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Because Petkau grows beach oysters, which have healthier tougher shells that those grown on rafts or poles, he must take advantage and get out there in the cold fog with a flashlight. Then, loaded with 2000 lbs of oysters, he heads for Cortez through the icy back waves; there have been some heart-stopping moments in rough weather on water so cold it could kill you in 10 minutes.

It's a remote site, and as he heads for the beach at four in the morning Petkau knows he may meet up with commercial poachers and face the possibility of a confrontation. Some growers, say Petkau, arm themselves. So far, the poachers he's surprised have left without conflict. Oyster farmers can lose several thousand dollars worth of shellfish in a night to these professionals.

Natural disturbances, like storms, can wash thousands of baby oysters out to sea; killing frosts can wipe out colonies of clams.

"The big thing for me is that it's very much a lifestyle which demands and rewards hard work. You don't count your hours; you go to work very, very hard, and you gain a deep satisfaction. It's the lifestyle I've grown up with, and what I want to pass on to my family," says Petkau.

In response to the growing demand for good, clean, healthy food, Petkau sees plenty of possibilities for his business. There's the internet, through which someday, for example, and order could be placed for 40 dozen live oysters to be couriered in time for a Saskatchewan wedding. He'd like to market sauces and cookbooks. He has plans in the works now for a line of deli smoked oysters. And he'd love to have a stall on Baker Street, to convert the folks in his home town to the wonder of a fresh-cooked, oyster. For now, Petkau and his truck can be found monthly at the Farmer's Market. His next visit is planned for Saturday, May 29.

Between now and then, it's back to the tidal pools of Marina Island, British Columbia-the world of Petkau's oyster.
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