The new-gen farmer managing three leases
Andrew Prowse never meant to be an oyster farmer. The 34-year-old studied property valuation at university and decided an office job wasn't for him. So in 2016, he decided to turn the oyster farm his father had started as a hobby into a full-time business.
The Queensland Oyster Company has several leases, in Moreton Bay (near North and South Stradbroke Islands) and across the border in northern New South Wales. In total the farm spans three hectares (7.4 acres) on the Tweed River, six hectares (14.8 acres) at North Stradbroke and 12 hectares (29.7 acres) at South Stradbroke.
"In 2016 I saw the opportunity in Moreton Bay and Queensland. It was small industry then when compared to the larger operations in New South Wales. I spoke to older farmers who said it was a good growing area and I fell into it from that," Andrew says.
"In Moreton Bay the oysters themselves grow incredibly well but there's not a lot of supporting infrastructure such as boat ramps or shore-based processing lots near the farms. It's difficult to get to leases, get the oysters back in and process them and then back out. The area is very exposed, akin to Coffin Bay in South Australia. The oysters are a long way out and the conditions so rough that it's often difficult to even get there. It's also a 45-minute run by boat on North Stradbroke island, which is a long way from our shed."
To increase his options, two years ago Andrew started growing an increasing number of his young oysters in the more sheltered waters of the Tweed River in northern NSW and using the more exposed Queensland sites to grow-out and finish.
"It’s a lot of work running sites in three distant areas. I can travel 150km (93 miles) in a day sometimes if I'm bringing oysters up to North Straddie. it's an hour drive up from Tweed then a 45-minute run by boat. The effort is usually rewarded though, and we’re producing some amazing oysters as a result." he says.
"Logistically, it's incredibly hard to keep an eye on everything at one time. I'm definitely not a meticulous note taker and SmartOysters saved me from myself, I’m not writing everything down in a notebook and then losing the notebook.
"For me, whiteboards don't make any sense. With this app I can run three estuaries on my phone and if someone is helping me, I can get them organised and ready for me when I arrive. I can delegate tasks to the Tweed if I'm on North Straddie, they know where to go and how to find it.
"It means there's a lot less stuffing around. When I get to the farm I can be effective as soon as I arrive at work."
One of the biggest issues for Andrew is QX disease. Two years ago, the Sydney Rock-specific parasite wiped out the whole crop of 40,000 dozen.
"It was devastating. That was going to be our banking year, we had everything lined up. But it made us better farmers, it meant we had to be super on top of where our oysters are at what time of the year," he says.
"We use North and South Straddie come summertime when the disease risk is at its worst. Moving the oysters was a lot of work and nearly broke me but we saved 20,000 dozen."
Working three estuaries is challenging, but also has its benefits.
"I can manipulate the flavour of the oyster quite a lot. In the Tweed they taste very 'minerally' with a strong metallic flavour. You put them up on South Stradbroke and they continue to hold that flavour but if you put them on North Stradbroke all that 'minerality' leaves it and they become super sweet and super salty," Andrew says.
"They don’t fatten in the same way as oysters in NSW, they're not fat or super creamy, but they are bloody good."
Andrew also sees not having a farming background as an advantage.
"One of the things I realised with third generation farmers is that they’re boxed into an idea that there's only one way to do things. As a new farmer, you look at things with a clear perspective. I'm spread out around so much that I want to know how I can make it as easy as possible. For example, we tried trays for a season, but it was way too hard, and we disregarded it," he says.
"I don’t know enough about oysters and how they grow and their biology, but in terms of material handling and processing, not having that background has helped me. I'm not wedded to one idea, I give it a go and if it works great but if it doesn’t, I cut it loose and try something else.
"SmartOysters definitely made things a hell of a lot easier. Working with Ewan and Col also gave me a fast track into farm management as its a pretty steep learning curve if you don't have any help."