After graduating from N.C. Central University 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in geography Ryan Bethea taught social studies to 8th graders in Durham for a couple years. He planned to eventually study law.
Then one day, after stumbling across a magazine article at his parents’ house, the tide shifted for the middle school teacher.
In 2011, the Durham-born North Carolinian decided to become a farmer, but not the type of farmer you might envision. He decided to take to the sea to do his farming.
“It was kind of just an ‘Aha!’ moment,” said the 34-year-old Bethea, speaking about his decision to start his business – named Oysters Carolina — in oyster mariculture. But first he did post-graduate work in oyster genetics at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
‘’Starting your own business isn’t easy,” said Bethea, who continued teaching while he started his oyster business in Harker’s Island.
“Anyone that wants to should know they have their work cut out for them. Lots of time, in fact all your time will be devoted to the project. You’ll never work harder for anyone than yourself.”
His attire consists of high-waisted water waders instead of classic denim overalls. To protect the environment he often maintains his 300,000 or so oysters using a kayak.
He spends his days farming knee deep in saltwater. Ryan leases 5 acres of estuary or “underwater farm” from the state on the coast of Harker’s Island, a perfect location for oyster mariculture.
According to Bethea it was almost inevitable that he would turn to some form of farming. He’s a lover of seafood himself and his grandparents on both sides farmed.
His market research helped identify that oyster aquaculture was an industry still in its infancy with undeniable growth in a niche area. A little background work at a high-end oyster bar helped him appreciate the intricacies of the food and beverage industry where he sells his oysters.
Bethea started his business without taking on any debt. He spent two years stockpiling oysters, without any sales. Today Bethea drives up to 1,000 miles a week to hand deliver oysters to restaurants and businesses.
“My advice for any 20-somethings that want to start their own business is to wait. The amount of work involved should be carefully considered before investing time and money. What worked well for me was not having any outside investors,” said Bethea at a January NCCU series featuring business entrepreneurs. “I didn’t like the idea of someone else having control over my business.’’
Bethea’s pride in his work has been recognized. In 2016, he received the “Oyster of the Year” award at the 30th Annual North Carolina Seafood Festival.
Story by James Jeffries