Oyster farmer Ewan McAsh was looking for a better way to farm. One that wouldn’t leave him tied to the river all week or tired from having to think about it all the time.
The 40-year-old Australian farmer with leases in the Clyde River, about three hours south of Sydney, was frustrated that farm operations left little time to attend to the business side of things. He also struggled to scale his business because aquaculture is traditionally an underbanked industry.
To solve both problems, he created SmartOysters. The GPS-enabled app, which launched late 2017, drew on his 16 years of experience running an oyster farm. It not only helped him navigate what needed to be done on the farm, but it was also pivotal in securing finance to grow the business and, most importantly, freed up his headspace.
“SmartOysters is all about operations. I designed it because there was nothing else on the market that fulfilled my needs,” explains McAsh.
“Users can go about their business and the app will capture their unique farming practice. Being able to personalise it is important because the challenges of farming are unique to a certain location. Everything a farmer learns is often captured in their memory and that knowledge is what’s needed to scale and grow,” he adds.
Digitising farm operations
“My farm has 30,000 oyster baskets in the water, we handle 600-1,000 a day, which are picked up or redeployed to up to 200 locations. To grow good oysters, you need to know where they are, what they are and when you need to go back to grade or dry them,” he says.
“If one of these things are missed, it has a disastrous effect. At the end of the day we are looking after an animal’s health, they are filter feeders, so we don’t have to feed them, but we do have to look after them. Just like any other animal, in order to grow them to be a good quality product you have to look after them and keep them healthy.
“You don’t vaccinate or medicate oysters, they’re a natural, organic product, but the things you have to do are quite labour intensive and spread over a large area.”
Every oyster farmer faces different challenges – from barnacles, to tides, to weather patterns.
“These challenges are unique, you can’t pick up my oyster farm and put it in another river because the scheduling and methodology are unique to where we grow, they’ve been developed over the years from trial and error,” McAsh explains.
The challenges of scaling an underbanked industry
“How do you keep growing your business to make operations more efficient, bring on more employees and explain the business to someone wanting to invest when your product is underwater? People can’t walk out to see it like they would a cattle farm,” reflects McAsh.
“An investor recently told me that they didn’t understand the value of an oyster farm; they couldn’t see the real estate, it was just water sloshing around to them, because they couldn’t look at the animals, which were all in baskets spread over a vast area.
“How oysters are being farmed is all in the farmer’s head, that knowledge is hard to transfer and communicate. By digitising farm practice, it makes it more visible to an investor because they can see and understand those numbers.
“Ask a farmer how they farm, and they’ll more than likely shrug their shoulders and say they just do it. SmartOysters was developed to capture the time and place, when and where a farmer does something, which allows people to have a better understanding and visibility of what a farmer is doing and how they can be more efficient to grow their business.
“Data-driven insights into how the farm operates mean you can make better decisions.”
Lightening the mental load
An unexpected upside to SmartOysters, which McAsh didn’t anticipate, was that it contributed to better mental health among users.
“When I meet farmers now, I can see that they’re really distracted and stressed. I used to be like that, the only way I could keep track of everything on the farm – what happened and what needs to happen next – was to continually scroll that information through my head. In bed at night I would mentally fly over the leases, remember where everything was and what I had to do when I got there the next day,” he says.
“Now, with SmartOysters, I don’t have that problem. I was able to bring my brother-in-law into the business, he’s only been farming for a few years and I’ve been doing it for 16, but he already farms better than I do because he has a clear head. We don’t talk about where things are and what happens next, because that information has already been captured on the app, so we can discuss other business challenges rather than the day-to-day operations or whether the surf’s been good.
“The oyster farm is now bigger and more profitable than when I worked seven days a week but had to remember everything. I was the only person who knew what to do, so I never took a day off. What I’ve noticed when we talk to farmers is that they don’t tell us about the time SmartOysters is saving them, but that it’s allowed them to take their first holiday in years. They talk about their emotional state rather than financials or ROI.”
McAsh now finds himself more present, in his professional and personal life. And it’s something that his farm manager, Jason, also benefits from.
“Talking to Jase’s wife, she told me that I’ve given him the dream job; he has autonomy and works four days a week, so he has time with his kids. He is a new entrant, but he’s been able to come into the oyster industry and not become overwhelmed when taking up that burden of farming. He has managed to create a work-life balance and I feel good about that,” says McAsh.
“Jase and I both go to bed at night with clear heads. I’ve been able to hand over the family farm and still feel like I have a connection to it. I can see what’s going on and that everything is under control. If he does need my help it’s easy to understand what’s happening on the farm because of the SmartOysters dashboard and GPS maps.”
Smart Oysters is part of Hatch's portfolio, but The Fish Site retains editorial independence.