My friend Ewan McAsh is an oyster farmer on the Clyde River in New South Wales, Australia. He is a fellow Nuffield Scholar and was a travel mate of mine through Australia, Holland, U.K., India, and Qatar. A young man with vision, he was named in 2015 as a finalist for NSW farmer of the year. Oysters are one of Australia’s oldest agricultural industries.
Ewan was never content to just be a regular guy on a boat. I spent many hours talking to him as we rattled through the countryside in a little bus. He had vision and passion and he was looking for a way to stand out. At the time he had started a little oyster bar and was buying up items to make it funky. A harvester of the delicious and indigenous Sydney Rock Oysters, and now of Pacific and the native Angasi oyster, he is also a master of flavour and texture.
Like any entrepreneur, Ewan was restless in an industry with 320 growers, a number which had decreased marketing power. Despite the global decline in seafood stocks and the massive increase in demand, it was hard for single farms to get the pricing or the recognition they needed. To get change charged up Ewan switched from the old system of stick and tray to baskets and put in an electronic grading system. This increased efficiencies on his farm, which sells 60,000 dozen oysters a year.
Just like cattle farmers, oyster farmers are now obtaining oyster families along with their pedigree. Wisely, the industry is looking at multiple trait selection to improve the growth and quality of oysters. Oysters, particularly the Angasi, can take up to 3.5 years to grow. By focusing on pedigree, some oysters are now finished at 18 months.
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Oysters start as free-swimming larvae and attach to a hard surface and become spat. The spat is what oyster farmers buy. Over time they develop their extraordinary shell while they pull water and food in through their gills. They spawn in nature and a female may release over a million eggs. Like lobster, there was once such an abundance of oysters that they were considered the poor man’s food. Tough creatures, oysters can survive out of water for several hours but like all creatures can be susceptible to disease. Science plays a big role in the future of oyster production.
What makes Ewan McAsh the famous oyster farmer that he is?
It used to be a tough question for him to answer. A thoughtful fellow, he was challenged one day on our travels. On a domestic flight in India, Ewan noticed that Rick Stein was on the plane. The famous U.K. chef was in search for the perfect curry and our group was on a mission to find a shower after many, many hours of travel. Ewan introduced himself and Stein’s first question was: What do you think makes your oysters so great?
Today, Ewan can rattle that answer off in a heartbeat. He has developed Signature Oysters, a collective that can supply fresh oysters to their clients year round. His idea was to bring the experience of being near the water to the kitchen. And when Ewan puts a box of oysters together he includes a beautiful inner wrap with a company name and a card with his name and signature on it. Now chefs have a direct connection with the crates of oyster they order. Ewan uses the word “celebration” when he talks of the flavours and textures of the different areas that the product comes from.
I like that. Celebrating food and celebrating our role in producing it is something we should do every day. And as Ewan has taught an aging industry, so is celebrating change, technology and opportunity. For Ewan, challenging the industry and implementing technology has paid off. Farmers can now easily lift baskets and scan the production line for salinity and other problems electronically. Productivity has increased. There is a new awareness for NSW oysters and chefs are anxious to see that beautiful box on their work counter.
I am very proud of Ewan. He stuck it out through tough times, put together a great business plan, and then led the change. He engaged others. It is young men and women of his calibre that make agriculture so exciting and so strong.
Oysters, onions, beef or bacon — whatever we grow — there is open space for creative thinking, supportive science, untapped enthusiasm and leadership.
We are in a good business, this business of farming. Let’s celebrate that every day!