Tuesday, April 7, 2015

07/04/2015: Australia's oyster boys are challenging tradition

There’s something new spawning in our rivers and estuaries. It’s not a toxic algal bloom, nor some mysterious denizen of the deep. Rather, a new breed of oyster farmer has surfaced to challenge tradition and deliver a super-premium product, The Australian reports.

As first light casts a sparkle on the Clyde River on the NSW South Coast, young gun oyster farmer Ewan McAsh takes a few helping hands (aka Woofers) and his dog Nacho out to harvest the day’s catch.

“I’m known as the rock ’n’ roll oyster farmer,” the 34-year-old says with a wry smile. 

“Some call me anti-traditionalist.”

McAsh is brash, confident and measured. He’s also hell bent on ensuring the longevity of not just his own oyster farm — Ewan McAsh Signature Oysters — but that of the industry as a whole.

“For me to grow a good quality oyster, I have to do whatever I can to keep that oyster healthy and happy,” he says. And that entails using the latest technology.

Every oyster lover knows the joy of eating a fresh, briny oyster. And when it’s a very good oyster, there’s that extra, ineffable dimension of flavour and texture. That is the experience McAsh is targeting.

Unlike most oyster farmers, the business is not in McAsh’s blood. He has a degree in marine science and studied fish-farming, but it was his father Kevin who lured him to the Clyde in 2004. 

“Dad said, ‘maybe we should get into oyster farming’.”

A week later his father rang him and said: “I found a farm and quit my job.” 

He’d been working as a public servant for 25 years and neither had run a business — let alone farm oysters.

They took over a traditional stick-and-tray oyster farm in Batemans Bay. Treated sticks catch the oysters, which are then grown in timber trays, also treated with chemicals to stop them rotting. 

“Over time the chemicals leach out,” McAsh says.

He and Kevin researched world’s best practices, travelling to pioneering oyster farms in France, the US, New Zealand, South Australia and Tasmania. Then they replaced the treated timber with recycled plastic poles, plastic mesh to catch the oysters and 5-8kg plastic baskets in which to grow single-seed oysters. The practice, McAsh says, is much more sustainable than traditional methods.

Baskets float on the water’s surface, so the oysters are continually feeding in the top half of the water column but are protected from predators; the basket is flipped to mimic the action of the tide. This means the farmer can span across shallow and deep water to grow the oysters. McAsh also introduced a high-speed sorting machine, Shellquip, a new product developed in Tasmania.

Not satisfied with that, in 2010 he opened a ­little eatery, Ulladulla Oyster Bar (recently sold), to get closer to the end user. By day he was growing oysters, by night shucking them for diners.

“I soon realised that what wholesalers were asking for wasn’t actually what the consumer wanted,” he says. 

“[Diners] want to taste the characteristics of an oyster from a certain region — to know it’s a Clyde River Sydney Rock.”

So he set his sights on refining the true characteristics of the oyster and improving product traceability. 

“Traditionally, you’d grow oysters for three years, put them in a hessian sack, load them on a truck and wait for a cheque. They could be any old oyster for all the consumer knows.”

Read more HERE.

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