Ewan McAsh starts most days gliding on a pre-dawn tide to visit the small plump creatures that are making the family’s farm famous.
“I come out here on the Clyde first thing to check the quality of the oysters we’re harvesting,” he explains.
“I’ll then head to the shed to prepare them for sale and go online to manage orders and admin for both our businesses. We’re a different kind of oyster farmer: I go from harvesting oysters and being at the river during the day to shaking cocktails at night in our oyster bar.”
A new lease on life for an old farm
Just over a decade ago, Ewan completed his degree in Marine Science, which he says gave him a licence to learn (“anything you don’t know is only a YouTube tutorial away”) and the fortitude to put it to good use.
His father Kevin was ready for a change after 25 years in the Public Service.
“It was Dad’s idea,” recalls Ewan. “He said ‘Let’s go oyster farming,’ and I thought ‘that’s not a bad idea’, because oysters grow naturally in commercial quantities on the river and farming them can be very sustainable. A week later he rang me up and said ‘I’ve found an oyster farm – are you in or out?’ So we got into it naively but it’s been very rewarding.”
Aussie oyster (almost) history
Humans have been harvesting and enjoying fresh oysters for millennia in Australia, evidenced by the many shell beds in kitchen middens along our coastline, some of which have been carbon dated to 10,000 years ago. In the 1800s early European settlers in NSW nearly wiped out the State’s oysters with the high demand for the lime in the shells used as a key ingredient in cement.
Today the biggest issues are disease and pollution. In 2013 nearly 90 per cent of the Hawkesbury River’s oysters were infected or killed by disease. In the Clyde River area the big oyster health threats are marine fouling caused by pollution from industrial and boating activities, and bacteria from local agricultural and urban runoff.
Although some vet treatments are available, it’s simpler to move oysters away from affected areas – and to do that you need a highly portable farming system.
Modernising an old industry
The farm Kevin and Ewan McAsh bought originally had stick-and-tray setups to cultivate oysters, using tarred hardwood to trap oyster larvae: “When you catch oysters on a stick they grow gnarled and clustered around each other,” observes Ewan.
“Then you have to sit at a table and chip them apart – these days it’s hard to find someone who will sit and chip oysters for eight hours a day.”
The tray method uses 1.8 to 2.7 metre trays made from timber, wire or plastic, which allow ready access to check the condition of the oysters or move them, but they can be high maintenance.
Recent innovations such as recycled plastic floating baskets make farming the oysters a lot more sustainable – and a lot less back-breaking, explains Ewan: “We’re using a really modern and OH&S-friendly system, which is light, so anyone can help me harvest oysters and enjoy the river.”
While it was a big investment, converting the farm to the floating basket system meant that McAsh oysters can mature in half the time.
The baskets also protect oysters from predators (bream, octopus and stingray) and without the stick there are fewer misshaped oysters – which equals a higher market value.
The world is McAsh's oyster
“Ten years of farming – and a lot of unhappy girlfriends – has taught me that success cannot just be about making money. It needs to be more sustainable. We want the business to evolve so that it doesn’t need me 24/7,” reflects Ewan.
“As a young guy I thought if I just worked physically hard we’d achieve our goals. In the end, the best milestones have been achieved on the laptop: tracking down and winning grants, developing business plans, managing cashflow and marketing the business.”
Opening the Ulladulla Oyster Bar in 2010 gave the business a regular retail outlet and more cashflow: “When this place was a seafood shop people used to come in, buy a dozen oysters, eat them in about 30 seconds and leave,” muses Ewan.
“It was disappointing because it takes us a few years to grow fantastic oysters. Now we have a place where people can celebrate what oysters are about while enjoying a drink, socialising and listening to music. It’s the best thing we’ve ever done.”
Marketing the Oyster Coast gave the brand a massive boost in media exposure, which in turn helped grow sales to restaurants and new customers across Australia: “The beauty of the Oyster Bar is that we’re not only selling direct to the public, we also send the best of the best fresh oysters directly to restaurants. We can have them harvested, packed and with the restaurant within 48 hours.”
Now that the business is humming along Ewan wants to put more of his energies into building an international Oyster Empire.
“What we’ve got on the South Coast and the Clyde River is fantastic water quality for growing delicious oysters. Only one per cent of our production is going out of Australia right now, so it’s really about lifting production and taking Australian oysters to the rest of the world. ”