Oysters have always been an expensive product: they are labour-intensive to produce, difficult to scale up and market demand far outweighs output.

Recent floods further proved just how vulnerable the oyster industry is to natural events. The floods, which drowned the coastline and stretched 600 kilometres from Sydney to the Northern Rivers, had a devastating effect on the state’s aquaculture industry.

Almost all New South Wales oysters — which account for 55 per cent of annual production — are out of action until water habitats return to normal. Other states have tried to compensate, but there is still a nationwide shortage that has led to increased oyster prices across the country.

According to Oysters Australia, only 3 per cent of Australian oysters are exported — more than 80 per cent to Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan — because there are none to export.

Oyster farmers have faced a conundrum for a while now. Due to the near-impossible nature of scaling up oyster farming operations and output, there was never a way to meet the insatiable demand for oysters in the Australian market, let alone an international marketplace.

Ewan McAsh

The issue became apparent to Batemans Bay oyster farmer Ewan McAsh soon after he went into business with his father. “I went in on an oyster farm my dad was purchasing, and being quite naive, I was just like, ‘Yep, I’m just going to work twice as hard and I’ll make twice as much money as the next person’, but that’s not how it works,” McAsh tells Hospitality.

“We realised the farm needed to be more efficient, so we started modernising the cultivation methods and getting automated grading machines. But as I was doing those things, I realised we weren’t making enough money for the wholesale supply chains.

“Ultimately, farm management always fell down; I was the only one who knew what to do and when to do it on any given day, so operations were always on me. The management system just didn’t work; it was complex, it required you to sit down and
manually put information in after work.”

McAsh’s farm comprises roughly 40,000 oyster baskets, of which 600 to 1,000 are handled each day. The oysters are classed into 16 different sizes and eight different crops, with the baskets deployed in more than 200 different locations.

All oysters need to be graded once every four months. They are also air-dried once every two to five weeks during the oyster’s growth period of three years.

Until recently, the only way for a farmer to keep on top of their task list was to manually enter data into a system that tracks what stage an oyster basket was at. Reminders were also manually scheduled to give workers an understanding of what tasks they needed to complete.

Four years ago, McAsh went looking for a solution. When he couldn’t find one, he decided to create one himself. With the help of his partners and co-founders, McAsh created SmartOysters, an app that uses GPS technology to map an oyster farmer’s lot and automatically capture data.

The data gives oyster farmers insights into their farm performance and value. It also frees up their time from manual data entry and task scheduling, which in turn frees up more time for upscaling operations.

“What other oyster-management systems aim to do is standardise farming,” says McAsh. “They ask the farmer to conform to certain ways of entering data in order to get reports and summaries from the software. What we did instead was use GPS maps — almost like Google Maps for your farm.

“In oyster farming, there is a lot of handling and stock movements happening and most farmers try to remember it all. The app records stock movements from the
first instance and it works because most farmers visualise their farm as a map.

“Operationally, we focus on collecting information but also scheduling tasks. You can drop a pin to record how many baskets are on a line and the size of a crop, and the app automatically schedules a task. So in four months’ time, it will tell you to come back and inspect them and grade them.

“Just about every farmer I’ve come across in any sector — aquaculture or land farming — has the same experience of, ‘I’ve built up all this knowledge and expertise farming on my patch but it’s really hard to transfer’. You have to do a 10-year apprenticeship to learn what I know, but we built an app that captures the unique farm practice and then gives you the ability to share it.”

When asked what he wants oyster farmers to get out of the SmartOysters app, McAsh
says: “A good night’s sleep”. He also hopes the app will finally enable a boon in the
production of oysters — and a subsequent price drop in the broader market.

“I’ve been farming for 16 years and we’ve just been able to bring on new people to help us grow the business,” he says.

“We’ve been having double production on our farm. And yet, we never have enough. Generally, there’s an undersupply of oysters. The industry hasn’t grown in decades; we haven’t produced any more. And when you have disasters like the floods or the bushfires, it reduces the amount of oysters available again. There has always been a need to increase the production of oysters, which is why we launched SmartOysters.

“If I talk to my broker who sells my oysters, they represent about 20 oyster farmers and they sell about 20,000 dozen baskets a week when the supply is there. But they could sell an additional 20,000 dozen. There’s a huge demand for oysters. But in order for the industry to actually grow, we need to be able to scale up farm practices, encourage more young people to come in and use farming data to help de-risk farms and help growers attract bank loans and investment capital. It’s what we need for the industry to grow.

“The other thing is oysters should be more affordable and more accessible if we can grow more. We need more abundant oysters and we need to be able to afford to eat more generally because they’re not cheap.”

The app has been commercially available for two years. In that time, McAsh’s clients now include 50 farmers from all around the world — Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States and the United Arab Emirates.

McAsh says he’s realised the need for technology, not just in aquaculture, but in farming practice more generally. “We’ve had interest from mussel farmers, seaweed
farmers, fish farmers — we’re actually looking to launch those products because we know they need solutions just as much as oyster farmers,” he says.

“I meet so many farmers who work on a river in a beautiful environment cultivating sustainable seafood, yet they’re distracted because they’re trying to remember all the things they need to do in a day. With something like SmartOysters, you can knock off with a clear head, have a good night’s sleep and grow twice as many oysters.”