The Digital Life of Oysters
Australian oyster farmer Ewan McAsh is thinking big – across species and markets – to put smart aquaculture management in the palm of producers’ hands, with support from the FRDC’s Fish-X program
Like many oyster farmers, Ewan McAsh faced a contradiction at the very heart of his business.
Despite working every day in a peaceful, pristine environment with a slow-growing animal, he was always in a hurry, constantly consumed by the management of his business.
“The entire business was in my head,” he says of his enterprise. He grows oysters across 120 locations in a range of age and size grades on the Clyde River in NSW.
“I would lie in bed and fly over the lease in my mind, continually reeling through where things were and what needed to be done.”
On top of that, he was also running an oyster bar and marketing company, Signature Oysters, selling his and other farmers’ produce into restaurants, with a focus on oyster provenance.
They were businesses close to his heart, but each came with its own travel commitments. And each time he left the farm, oyster production would suffer, quality would drop and mistakes would be made because, he says, “ultimately I was still the only one who really knew what was going on”.
The situation was simply not sustainable; something had to change.
A smarter way
So he got together with digital strategist Philip Browning and developed SmartOysters – an ingenious piece of technology that has taken the business out of his head, and into the palm of his hand.
SmartOysters is more than just “a database in the cloud”. The smartphone app is a complete farm management system.
Presented in a simple, colour-coded, visual format, it shows farmers instantly where their stock is, at what growth stage it is, and what action needs to be taken regarding any batch at any given time.
It also provides data analytics, environmental reporting and forecasting functions to help short and long-term planning and business strategy. Staff at all levels can use it and access information relevant to their tasks, ensuring mistakes are avoided and standards maintained.
For Ewan, it has transformed his business, and his life. In the 18 months since using the app, oyster production has doubled, their quality improved and price increased.
Meanwhile, it has made more time available to spend with his young family, while he checks-in remotely on farm operations.
Easy to access information
“I’ve spent the least amount of time on farm than I ever have yet it’s doing better than it ever has,” he says. “I’m happier at home, I can switch off, go on holidays and take a whole day off once a week to look after my daughter while knowing we are not dropping any balls in the business. And I can feel connected to the farm wherever I go.”
Ewan has travelled around Australia and the world marketing the app to other oyster and aquaculture enterprises including mussels, abalone, seaweed and finfish producers
Just a year after its commercial launch, SmartOysters is being used by small and large producers in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, England and the US.
“Philip and I envisaged it to be versatile,” Ewan says. “We have been able to solve problems for different industries because ultimately it’s about recording important information really easily.”
Critical to realising this vision, he says, has been Fish-X. Being involved in two-day Fish-X workshops and ongoing business mentoring has helped him hone his strategy and think big.
“I was just a farmer looking for a solution on my own farm. The message from Fish-X was ‘that’s good – but we want you to be thinking about turning this into a $100 million business’. Even $10 million was still thinking too small!” he says.
While he is some way from those kinds of numbers (everything SmartOysters makes goes back into the business to further its development), Ewan says Fish-X gave him the solid grounding, clarity, strategic skills and opportunities from which that kind of growth is possible.
In fact, he says, SmartOysters may not even still exist without it.
“Having the business coaching through Fish-X has kept us focused and given everyone confidence in its progress and in the process,” he says.
“If we had have been left to our own devices without the touchstone of Fish-X it would have been very easy to go off in the wrong direction. But we are growing in a strategic manner and adding value to our company and demonstrating that we are worth investing in.”
The Fish-X experience also exposed SmartOysters to markets that have enabled growth, funding Ewan to travel overseas to demonstrate the app to producers in the US.
While most Australian enterprises employ four or five people, some in the US have staff of more than 1000. Despite this, Ewan says the US management issues were surprisingly similar.
“I never expected a shellfish company with 1000 employees would be managing their stock with text messages, whiteboards and Excel spreadsheets,” he says. “But they were either doing that or licensing very expensive geological software, which our app can replace.”
Ewan says the functions of SmartOyster have grown layer by layer like an onion, with more applications added through the experience of using it on his own farm.
From managing stock, the app now also schedules machinery maintenance, can be used for employee management and also the movement of stock from the water into retail businesses.
Providing a virtual record of the enterprise, it can also be used as a business tool itself, allowing producers to demonstrate the value of their company, which in turn supports access to capital needed for growth.
“What it can do is actually quite complex, but it’s easy to use,” he says.
Ewan says benefits of Fish-X have not just been practical in a businesses sense, but have also been personal, through the people he has met. Sharing the stories and experiences of other innovators with fledgling start-ups has been invaluable.
“It’s a lot of work and you can feel business is not moving fast enough and then you speak to other start-ups and they have amazing ideas with heaps of opportunity and they are going through the same thing. So it helps keep you going,” he says.
By Melissa Marino – Coretext
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