WORLD IS THEIR
OYSTER Batemans Bay oyster farmers Ewan and Kevin McAsh with business partner Mick Daw are revitalising the New South Wales oyster industry Words / Anna Game-Lopata Photographs / Andrew Britten
he New South Wales oyster industry may be insignificant in world market terms, but it’s nothing a good dose of ambition and strategy can’t cure. Batemans Bay oyster producer and Nuffield scholar Ewan McAsh can’t help but be enthusiastic. He’s on a mission to raise farm gate prices, improve product recognition for farmers and lift the declining industry back into the black. “We have really good market conditions, there’s strong demand for our product,” Ewan says as we boat towards one of his ‘finishing’ oyster leases on the NSW south coast’s Clyde River. “The farmers here have good community acceptance and we just have a good quality, environmentally sustainable product with huge export potential. Oysters are a very good export species because they have such a long shelf life out of water.” It’s a quiet, peaceful ride on the sapphire sparkling river; and today though it’s peak Christmas oyster eating season, Ewan and his dad Kevin McAsh are harvesting and processing on their own while their usual team of workers are on holidays. “Oyster farms in northern parts of NSW are in full production and they tend to be more seasonal than us,” Ewan explains. “When their season ends in February demand will fall back on the businesses here [on the Clyde].
We produce about 60,000 dozen oysters a year.
To put it in perspective, Ewan describes players in Forster-Tuncurry who produce more on one farm than the whole of the Clyde River. “We’re the most productive estuary south of Sydney but we’re much smaller in scale compared to operations like that,” he says. “A lot of farmers on the south coast will actually hold stock back over Christmas to let the big farmers up north clear the decks. They’ll pick up later in the year and get better prices.” There are 20 oyster businesses on the Clyde River from those utilising 10 workers to a fair few one-man operations. Leases range from 4 hectares to 30ha; with a total of 200ha under production overall. 52
RIGHT, FROM TOP: Ewan McAsh heads out to his leases on the Clyde River, Batemans Bay; Harvesting the oysters. Floating baskets are unclipped from the line and loaded onto the tray in the boat
Ewan and Kevin, who began farming in 2004, produce about 1,000 dozen a week, harvesting 600 to 1,000 baskets a day. They hold 11 leases spread across 20ha making them the estuary’s third largest grower in terms of production. “We produce about 60,000 dozen oysters a year, while one of the bigger guys would be doing 80,000 dozen a year,” Ewan says. But Ewan is building a better way, for himself, other oyster producers on the Clyde and those further afield. “We’ve invested in machinery which enables a lot of smaller farmers along the south coast of NSW to process their oysters through my shed,” he says. “Farmers truck their oysters to me. I process them, bag, tag and sell them through my business partner, oyster supplier Mick Daw in Queensland.” “If necessary I also hold any surplus oysters on my leases, help finish and grade them to make sure the farmer can get the best prices.” When you add that in, Ewan’s 1,000 dozen per week jumps to 6,000 dozen and his 60,000 dozen per year skyrockets to 220,000 to 250,000 in terms of turnover through the shed. “That’sgivenusthecapacitytosupplybigger and better markets,” he says. Breeds include Sydney Rock oysters, Pacific oysters and the native Angasi. “Our business is in transition,” Ewan adds. “We’re phasing out wholesale supply and moving into boxed sales to key restaurant customers in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra along with potential export markets. That’s wheremyfocusis;onsupplyingabetterproduct. “At the moment we only do about 200 dozen boxed sales per week. [This year], we’ll bump that up to 1,000 dozen.”
Floating baskets Three generations of oysters float in baskets in the finishing lease we visit where those about to be harvested are in their final stage of development. Usually it takes about six to eight weeks for oysters to be finished.
ABOVe, FROM TOP: Ewan McAsh, pictured with Anna Game-Lopata, harvests 600 to 1,000 baskets carrying 100 oysters each per day that are destined for the oyster bar at Burrill Lake; There are 20 oyster leases on the Clyde River at Batemans Bay
The baskets are made of plastic and foam, stitched together with cable ties and clips. Ewan says they will last 15 years. It’s a very simple design commercialised by a farmer new to the oyster industry in Merimbula. “He saw farmers making baskets in their sheds when they should have been farming,” Ewan says. “He sent one over to a contact in China and now we can get container loads of these baskets. Don’t worry. As part of my Nuffield scholarship I visited China to make sure it was all done ethically, so it’s all good. I’ve got upwards of 15,000 plastic baskets now.” Harvesting is a simple matter of fastening the boat to the rope the baskets are attached to and unclipping them from it one by one. They are loaded by hand into large trays in the boat. The front line isn’t harvested as the baskets here contain any surplus being held for orders and will be picked up later.
Handling technology The trays of oysters are craned into the shed using a simple gantry set-up. “We have a 2m tidal movement so when the tide’s low we can bring oysters in with the crane, but when the tide’s high we use forklifts to unload. Toyota is our brand of choice — we’ve had one for 20 years. We’re FULLYLOADED.com.au
amazed at how the equipment holds up in the salty environment. We also have a Toyota electric forklift that’s 15 years old,” he says. The oysters are tipped by hand into bulk bins, and using the forklift emptied on to the top of the grader to be sorted for wholesale based on size and length. The four grades — cocktail, bottle, bistro and plate — differ by 10mm. The larger they are the more money they fetch. Ewan and Kevin were the first in NSW to operate an off-the-shelf Shellquip grader from Tasmanian stainless steel manufacturer SED, but within 18 months other farmers started buying them. Now Ewan says there’s an SED grader in every estuary along the coast, and SED is exporting the machines all over the world. “The switched on guys buy one but hopefully they do some share grading through it,” Ewan says. The grading of oysters at the McAsh shed is very significant, as until now the industry has had no standardised approach to the process. Ewan has championed the introduction of wholesale grades to ensure his farming partners aren’t forced to accept small oyster prices for large ones. Oysters travel along a conveyor belt through a salt water washer to the inspection belt where any dead oysters or doubles are removed. A cylindrical sorter gently jostles them into single file in a continuous rocking motion. In this way the oysters are separated so they can be measured for length and width as they travel under a camera. Pneumatic air jets then deposit each oyster into one of four hessian bags according to grade at a rate of 100 oysters a minute. The system can also be adjusted to re-direct any oysters of the right size but lower quality such as those with a flaky shell. Ewan says his operation was cheap to put together from a general farming perspective. “An SED grader with all the bits and pieces is about $120,000,” he says. “I’ve got a few other graders at about $80,000, so it cost me about $300,000 to start farming. “Water quality is super important for the growth of oysters. We spend about $30,000 to $40,000 a year on water testing depending on the weather.” FULLYLOADED.com.au
Willing workers The McAsh operation could not function without its ‘Willing workers on organic farms’ affectionately known as Wwoofers. These enthusiastic volunteers offer a labour force as part of a program promoting organic farming. While some of the Wwoofers are tourists, about 80 per cent are people from overseas aiming to extend their visas by completing 88 days of rural work in a regional area. Many of them are highly skilled, including graphic designers or engineers who’ve offered Ewan and Kevin a welcome new perspective on the business and provide extra services such as fixingequipmentanddesigningboxesorflyers. While they’re not paid, they get food and board and receive training. “At first I felt bad about not being able to pay them,” Ewan says. “But when they come and live with me, they don’t pay a cent. I take them surfing, give them English lessons and take them to see kangaroos on the beach. They usually have a great time and get lots of experience.” The McAshs are also indebted to Wwoofers for saving the business. “We spent all this money and time modernising our leases without getting any increase in production,” he says. “The production we anticipated didn’t happen, growth was slow and there was a big mortality rate. So about two years ago we were going broke. We had to put off two full-time workers leaving me and my father overwhelmed with work. “That’s when I heard about the [Wwoof] program. It’s worked well and having the
Wwoofers enabled the money we’ve spent on technology and basket systems to pay off.”
Not waving, drowning Enthusiastic as they were when they started, it wasn’t long before the McAshs hit some major, potentially more problematic frustrations. “Every aspect of the industry needed work, there was no marketing there was no reliable spat supply, farmers weren’t collaborating and February 2015
RIgHT: McAsh Oysters aims to distribute their premium live oysters to restaurants and export markets; BELOW, FROM LEFT: The McAsh operation was the first in NSW to operate an SED Shellquip grader; Kevin McAsh removes dead or double oysters on the inspection belt before they’re graded by the camera and deposited in hessian bags
are spending a whole lot of money eating poor quality oysters. They’re a live product and if they’ve been open for two days you’re not getting bang for your buck. I reckon that’s why the value of oysters hasn’t gone up in relation to demand and also why people are not eating as many as they used to. There’s so much other seafood to eat like prawns or calamari.”
ABOVe, FROM TOP: Ewan McAsh prepares for harvest. The baskets of oysters will be loaded on to the tray and craned up to his shed; Ewan plans to raise farm gate prices for NSW oyster farmers; First harvest of the day. Ewan gets ready to empty the baskets into bulk bins for processing
they didn’t have good relationships with the government,” Ewan says. “The banks didn’t even know who we were. It’s a 100-year-old industry but they’d never lent money to an oyster farmer. I had to get it all started.” In addition, although the Clyde River is a very clean beautiful catchment well suited to finishing and selling oysters, it’s actually not the most productive river for growing them. “So for me to grow, expand my business and to be efficient, I needed to buy oysters from other farmers. That structure within the industry wasn’t there.” In 2012 Ewan received a Nuffield scholarship to investigate the role strategic planning could play in revitalising the NSW oyster industry. “I really wanted to get an understanding of how we could turn that around, as it didn’t seem market forces or individual businesses, even though they were hard-working and innovative, were turning the tide on this declining production,” he explains. In the six weeks of travel undertaken for the Nuffield scholarship, Ewan says the real highlight was seeing oysters consumed everywhere in the world. “I was eating French oysters in the Ukraine —andtherewasdemandforoysterseverywhere I went. People were just saying ‘we love oysters, can you get them to us?’” he recalls.
“India really challenged my perception that farms have to be large scale with efficiencies and volume. “The NSW oyster industry is made up of a lot of small farmers, and it made me realise that could be an asset for us into the future.” The NSW oyster industry is only a $30 million farm gate industry yet it has a Fisheries Department and a quality assurance program. “A lot of resources are spent on the NSW oyster industry and I think if we don’t increase production we’ll end up with such formidable pressure we just won’t be able to operate,” Ewan says. “We won’t be able to afford our food safety programs and the government won’t want to pay for them. “What I can see from 10 years working in the industry is no one business can turn around declining production and restructure the industry by itself,” he says. Something else he wants to change is the value placed on oysters. “I’ve travelled the world and we have these top quality, world-class oysters. They take three years to grow and you can’t get them anywhere else. They deserve a lot more respect in terms of the end sale instead of just being rinsed under fresh water and packed on ice to be eaten three days later. “To be honest, right now most consumers FULLYLOADED.com.au
Ewan set about marketing and opening an oyster bar at Burrill Lake, a popular NSW south coast holiday destination. Along with being a good source of extra revenue, Ewan focused on oyster opening nights and other events to raise the profile of fresh Clyde River oysters. But his main achievement has been pulling together partnerships with other oyster producers to increase and improve local production. The success of his efforts this year meant he had to sell the oyster bar (although he still supplies it) in order to concentrate on his fast-growing collaborative enterprise. It started with the Loftus family in Wonboyn, about three hours south of Batemans Bay. “They were experiencing hardship,” Ewan says. “They had a lot of stock, a lot of dead in their stock they didn’t have the machinery to handle it. Their problems were compounding and they couldn’t get on top of it. So I just said
‘ship it up in bulk bags’ and we cleaned the product up, sold it and got the cash flowing. “It freed up their leases and now they’re growing more baskets. That initially needed a bit of trust, but after about six months when the cheques started rolling in they were really happy. So it spread by word of mouth.” Ewan now has eight farmers across the south coast using his machinery. They truck their oysters in bulk bags of 1,000 or 2,000 dozen at a time, then Ewan either sells it or holds it on his leases until he can get the right prices. “We originally got the machinery on a grant to share with other farmers and now farmers areusingthemachineryandseeingthebenefits from it,” he says. “It’s often the new, younger farmers; they don’t want to sit at a table grading oysters,” he adds with a laugh.
“What used to take a full day of hand grading for these farmers, we can do in an hour. So instead of struggling just to keep their oysters healthy, they’re actually improving the productivity of their farms. If I sell 3,000 dozen for them in half a day, they can go back to the farm and grow better oysters. They don’t have to starve for three weeks. “I’ve had one farmer hug me. They’re just that hard up. He hadn’t sold any oysters for two months because the river was closed by rain. But I sold $20,000 worth of oysters for him in three days.”
Signature Oysters Ewansaysitallworksbecauseofhispartnership with Daw, who builds the markets through his business Oyster Source out of Queensland. Together they are launching a new company
left: Ewan McAsh loads the bulk bins of oysters on to the grading machine above: Kevin McAsh had the idea of going into oyster farming
in Tasmania offering a consistent supply to maintain that market between times.”
Supply chain vision
CLOCKWISE, FROM TOP: Eight farmers along the NSW south coast use the McAsh’s SED technology to process and grade their oysters enabling a quicker turnaround and higher prices; SED Shellquip software grades by measuring the size and length of the oysters and keeps tabs on processing, which on average will reach more than 100 oysters a minute; Washed and inspected oysters head up the conveyor belt for the sorter where they will be jostled gently into single file for grading
Signature Oysters working with five other farmers from other areas in Australia and they’re hoping to build on this. “Signature Oysters will pack live oysters and send to the thousands of great restaurants out there willing to shuck their own oysters.” Each oyster farmer supplier will have their own flyer with a spiel about themselves and their estuary so the origins of the oysters can be traced back to them. “Signature Oysters won’t just supply oysters in a better way than has traditionally been done, it will do the farmers a favour by getting recognition for their great product and do the best by the chefs and consumers by delivering a far better product,” Ewan says. “At the moment wholesale we get about
$6 per dozen when they’re worth double. Under the current marketing structure it’s not good enough just to put the price up, you need to be giving people something more. If we doubled our price people would just stop buying oysters. “A large scale distribution company will benefit farmers in smaller estuaries with very short harvesting periods who just don’t have the capacity to move a lot of volume quickly. They’ll move all their product at a premium price instead of being forced to discount.” “We’ll have a promotional ‘this month’s feature’ app for chefs to order Loftus Oysters from Wonboyn, for example, but then it’ll be backed up by farmers like myself, Coffin Bay farmers in South Australia and down FULLYLOADED.com.au
Being live, oysters don’t like fluctuating temperatures. Ewan says they are fine at about 10C to 15C out of the water for a couple of days. His partners’ oysters are trucked up in hessian bags on the back of trailers, processed for the Sydney markets in 48 hours or put back in the water within six. But until now, when oysters leave producers like Ewan for the wholesale markets, oysters have been distributed with seafood which requiresunfavourablecoldchaintemperatures of 0C or below. Daw,whosuppliesabout20,000dozenoysters a week across Australia and has worked in the industry more than 12 years thought there had to be a better way for them to be transported. He came up with the idea of distributing oysters through the vegetable network. “Developing the distribution network had its challenges because it required educating transport companies that oysters are not in the too-hard basket,” Ewan says. “Live oysters are just another box and as long as they’re transported quickly and efficiently and not left in the sun, there won’t be problems. It was more about convincing distribution companies oysters are easy to handle. Ewan and Daw struck up a partnership with fruit and vegetable supplier Yarra Valley Farms in Victoria and recently signed the contract. “We were very impressed with what they do in terms of their logistics and software management in terms of what’s going on and tracking it all. Their business has really good synergies with ours,” Ewan says. The oysters are packed in airfreight FULLYLOADED.com.au
rated polystyrene boxes lined with hessian. The polystyrene box acts as a buffer against temperature fluctuation. “With some branding added in it’s a very simple packing process,” Ewan says. “The packaging is perfect for the export markets although we are yet to develop control mechanisms overseas to prevent customers
Mick and I are going to change the way oysters are sold and marketed in Australia.
packing with seafood; so the polystyrene box is really important to protect against extremes of cold and warmth.” With the local distribution network nailed; Ewan says the key supply chain challenge is consolidating oysters on farms, which is about finding the right farmers and getting them to work together. “The five principle farmers in each of the key areas we’re getting oysters from will be using their network of farmers around them to pull the produce together,” Ewan says. “We’re only inviting farmers to work with us that already have a reputation for high quality. Me and Mick [Daw] are already dealing with those farmers and know they have a better quality than they’re being paid for. Once we pull those farmers together, we’ll recruit more.”
In terms of quality assurance Signature Oysters will use the Royal Agricultural Society’s judging criteria to assist in maintaining high standards. “And maybe win some awards,” Ewan says. “There will be a built in mechanism so that if you spend the time to grow super premium oysters and the chefs love them there’s greater demand the farm gate price will come up. “Collaboration traditionally happens by default in oyster farming,” he adds. “We have to collaborate on the quality assurance program; including testing the river. If we don’t do our testing or if there are problems with the river then we’re all out of business. So for us we could see there’s no other choice. To grow and be successful the industry has to work together. Ewan acknowledges the industry needs capacity to supply export markets. “We can’t supply export markets really; they’re huge. We can’t even supply domestic markets properly. But in the last two years I can see it growing. I can see farmers that would have been spending all their days hand grading now going back out on their leases and growing more oysters, growing better oysters. It’s so good to work with guys that get it and you can see them making more money and you can see capacity building. “We don’t want oysters of poor quality with mud worm or diseases going through the supply chain but what I know is we can get better prices, with recognition of the product going all the way back to the farmer. We’ll make it super easy for them to run their businesses and keep them sustainable. “Mick [Daw] and I are going to change the way oysters are sold and marketed in Australia. That’s what we’re doing, that’s what needs to happen. That’s what I am excited about.” February 2015