Fledgling oyster farmer Chris Matteo quit a job managing money to spend days knee-deep in mud and water on Chadwick Creek, near Bayboro on the Pamlico Sound. "Actually, it feels more like I'm playing hooky or goofing off." But he has not lost his eye for a potentially winning investment. With diners demanding more oysters, Matteo, 40, is joining a half-dozen or so farmers raising shellfish in the nation's second-largest estuary system.
Matteo started plotting his venture in 2010, when he and wife Kelly bought a 110-acre farm in Pamlico County. Back then, he was an analyst with Chapel Hill-based Silverback Asset Management LLC. "We love the coast," he says. "We were looking for a getaway. We were driving down there 40 weekends a year anyway." The deed contained a rarity: a 1906 clause that conveys 8 acres of wadeable creek bottom. Most such submerged coastal terrain is state-owned and available only in five-year leases that make long-term investment impractical.
Matteo, an upstate New York native, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1996 with a degree in international relations. Before moving to North Carolina to join Silverback in 2008, he worked as a currency trader on Wall Street and in other finance jobs. In 1998, he had helped start an Internet marketing company, New York-based [x+1] Inc., and later sold his shares. After buying the farm, he and father-in-law Duane Creech assembled its infrastructure: a 65-foot, partially covered dock, pontoon barge, freshwater well and a 2,200-foot road to the site.
Federally funded North Carolina Sea Grant, based at N.C. State University in Raleigh, promotes environmentally sustainable uses of coastal waters, and with him and others in tow, organized visits to oyster farms in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and elsewhere. "Each adult oyster filters up to 50 gallons of water a day," Matteo says, "and in our case, we will have 5 to 10 million oysters in the water by the end of this year."
In the spring of 2013, he quit his Chapel Hill job and started seeding oyster larvae from hatcheries on...