A DAY IN THE OYSTER FARM – GAZANDER OYSTERS
It’s no secret that I’m an oyster lover – in fact, I’d say they’re my favourite food of all time. I even have a plaque on the wall at Sean’s Kitchen to prove it. After Sean Connolly challenged me to eat 100 oysters in one sitting, I ended up consuming 120 in less than 25 minutes. So, I’m rather ashamed to admit that it wasn’t until a couple of months ago, that I’d given much thought to how they’re grown – when I was lucky enough to spend time at Gazander Oysters, a South Australian family business owned and run by Steven (Thomo) and Carly Thomson.
The farm is in the pristine waters of Little Douglas Bay in Coffin Bay where there are around 50 oyster leases within the bay system – so many, that there’s no more water being allocated to growing oysters now, so anyone wanting to start farming would need to purchase an existing lease.
What makes Gazander Oysters unique is they are one of smallest producers, and one of the few growers to put effort into branding. Their focus is on producing a premium product and they’ve successfully carved out a niche market, supplying most of their boutique product directly to restaurants, and since covid, directly to the public.
Many years ago, Carly’s father, Glyn Owen, was one of the first in the area to establish an oyster farm – Coffin Bay Shellfish. By 2002, after being given the opportunity to lease some water from the family business, Carly and Thomo started their own farm (they’d been running a landscaping and paving business). Since Glyn and wife Pam retired a few years ago, Coffin Bay Shellfish is being run by Carly’s two brothers.
We arrived at Port Lincoln on Good Friday and, after a seafood lunch, we drove to Little Douglas and Thomo took us on a bit of a tour. So many big oyster sheds!
Then, it’s out on the boat to catch our own dinner! Thankfully the King George whiting were cooperating and we managed to reel some in. Expertly filleted by Carly, they made a nice addition to the abalone that was waiting for us back at Carly’s parent’s place where we were staying, and the ‘here’s some we prepared earlier’ container of pipis that, to my delight, we picked up out of the water on our way back to shore. And of course, there were oysters… LOTS of oysters!!
Saturday, it was out to the Oyster Farm which is a 5-minute boat ride from the beach, and what I learned is – oyster farming is bloody hard work – it’s literally blood, sweat, worry and tears. There’s ‘oyster farming’ and then there’s ‘Gazander oyster farming’ which takes it to a whole new level in their pursuit of excellence – to make each oyster as perfect as it can be. I love their quote: ” Growing oysters is like raising children. We protect them and keep them safe from the elements when they are tiny. We take care of them all.”
Thomo has spent his days refining and perfecting his system of growing the perfect oysters. And what defines the perfect oyster? According to Thomo, it’s a nice teardrop shape, a nice shell depth, a very slightly curved lid, minimal or no frill around the edges, and of course, succulent flesh.
If there’s such a thing as a ‘typical’ day for Thomo, it would be a 7:00am start and then working non-stop until dinner, but of course, days are dictated by the weather and the tides.
Being one of the smallest farms, it’s spread over about 4 hectares and contains 2.5 million to 3.5 million oysters at any given time. It sounds like a big area to me and a lot of oysters, but to put this in perspective, some of the bigger leases in the area spread over 20 to 40 hectares!
The aim is to get young oysters (they buy spat from a local hatchery), reduce the frill from the edges and harden up the shells to make them more resilient. The baby oysters come in at around 4mm and it takes 15 – 18 months to get from this size to restaurant-ready. Managing the frill can be done either naturally – through wind and wave action where the oysters rub together, forming a natural round shape, or through rumbling and shaking in special machines back in the sheds. When done this way, it’s best to rumble them earlier in their lifecycle when the shell is a bit softer, and then return them to the water. It’s a nice hard edge Thomo is after.
Gazander employs the long line basket system of growing oysters on their lease with minimal impact on the environment. There’s the hanging system, where the oysters are in hard plastic mesh baskets and are, depending on the conditions, clipped on and off a fixed-height line. Then there’s the pillow system where the oysters are contained within pillow-shaped mesh containers more permanently attached to a line which you can raise and drop the height of. With the hanging system, it makes it easier to move the oysters around more due to the individual clip-on baskets (and it’s much easier and faster to hang the baskets at low tide). With the pillow baskets, it’s labour intensive because it’s heavier to move the line up and down.
As a general principle, you want oysters to be raised higher when there’s wind so the wave action moves the oysters around to work the frill off. As well as wind, there’s also temperature considerations. If it gets too hot and the oysters are exposed, Thomo and the team may unclip the baskets and drop them in the water for mortality reasons. When the seasonal temperature drops, things settle down and are a bit more manageable – but summer is difficult period to manage.
Then you need to think of where the oysters are positioned within the lease. You want the bigger oysters on the outside rows, and the smaller ones on the inside rows where there’s more protection, so this means more moving around of the baskets.
So every day, Thomo’s thinking about tides (it’s constantly trying to beat the tides), the weather, what has to be moved where, and he has to remember exactly what’s where and what’s ready to be sold – and it changes every day. It’s back-breaking work lifting, moving, clipping and unclipping baskets all day every day.
In their pursuit of excellence, they don’t want to sell the oysters if they’re not perfect, but they still have to move the oysters and get them to market to make more space and, obviously, make money. They currently aim to move around 2,000 dozen a week, and the domestic market currently consumes all of this.
Even though they’re a small farm, Thomo tells me that they don’t want to expand much more – it’s quality that they’re after, and they enjoy being small enough to be able to continue to work directly with restaurants and the public.
My day in the oyster farm was certainly an eye-opener. Apart from the fact that I was completely out of my comfort zone – outdoors, in the sun, in a T-shirt and on the water, it was a fascinating look into the world of oyster farming. Never did I think there was so much work involved. After thinking I couldn’t possibly appreciate oysters any more than I have done in the past, after my time with Thomo and Carly and understanding the process, my appreciation has gone to the next level! Eat more oysters, I say!