Thirty years after Selwyn “Kiwi” Evans was first approached to try oyster farming, the little town of Smoky Bay — where he cultivated his first spat of oysters — is famous for its oyster industry.
Mr Evans came to Australia from New Zealand in 1966 and he worked for 20 years as a farmer and builder on South Australia’s West Coast.
In 1988 land farming was tough and a lot of share farmers had to find other work, which is how Mr Evans became the pioneer of oyster farming in Smoky Bay.
“A bloke named Ron Fuller came to me and said, ‘You better read this piece of paper, I think it will suit you’,” Mr Evans said.
“The rural recession had come and all us share farmers were the first to go.
Smoky Bay ideal for oyster farming
The waters around Smoky Bay were full of nutrients, making it the perfect location for growing shellfish.
It was not long before other families — 12 in fact — joined Mr Evans in his aquaculture venture, but Mr Evans said they faced a few hurdles at the start.
“We had a bit of trouble with the Lands Department,” he said.
“They wouldn’t let us go out where the oysters really grew well and they tried to take a few leases off us.
“Graham Gunn was the Speaker of the South Australian House of Assembly at the time and he was a big help in getting us access to the better waters.”
It took a few years before all the oyster leases were moved out to the good area and from there the industry was able to flourish.
He said there have been many changes over the years not only in Smoky Bay’s oyster industry but also the town.
“When we first started we had to borrow my old mate’s boat because he was the only one with an outboard motor, and then we towed other boats behind,” he said.
“In the industry there has been a lot of changes like racking to long lines and different sorts of baskets and grading machines.
“And the town back in the day; they couldn’t sell the blocks of land here for even $8,000 whereas now they are $100,000 more.”
Taking over from dad
Mr Evan’s son Judd Evans remembers when his dad first started in the oyster industry and that he knew nothing about what he was getting into.
“A lot of people liked eating the natural oysters while looking for razorfish, but many had no idea about the industry,” Judd said.
“Some people from Tasmania came over and gave us a bit of know-how and we all took it from there.
“As all ex-farmers they were pretty clever … they just built and made whatever had to be made and improvised and here we are 30 years later.
“It looks a lot more professional, but still good fun.”
Judd said having a farming background definitely helped get the oyster industry started.
“We are stock owners and a bit like your sheep you’ve got to keep looking after them,” he said.
“Oysters are much the same. We handle them quite often and make sure they are all clean and tidy and happy, becasue happy oysters make for fat oysters.”
Judd would always help his mum and dad on the oyster lease and by age 15 he was keen to leave school and become a full-time oyster farmer.
“I’ve been oyster farming now for nearly 24 years and just love it,” he said.
He too can see how much has changed over the years.
“Now we have specialist equipment for that.”
Judd said local oyster farmers now have specialised oyster barges and tractors and he remembers the day his family got their first oyster barge.
“I have never seen mum and dad so proud … it wasn’t the first barge in town, but that was a game changer and that was when I left school because there was enough work for me to come on board as well.”
Judd now runs the family business “Kiwi’s Oysters” in Smoky Bay, but his parents, Kiwi and Di, still come in to help with grading oysters.
He remembers fondly the day his dad received the first batch of spat to get his oyster farming started.
“In the very early days dad had to pick up 200,000 baby oysters from the airport and dad, being terribly excited, hooked the trailer onto the car thinking, ‘Well, I am picking up a lot of oysters, I will need the trailer’,” Judd said.
“I would have loved to have seen his face when they walked out with a small foam box and passed it to him … they were soon strapped into the front seat with a seat belt because he was protective of his little oysters.”
Working with the brothers
There is about 19 different oyster operations in Smoky Bay now, including the Zippel family’s.
This includes the three brothers, Bruce, Ashley and Gary, who started farming in the late 1980s as well.
They were the fourth family behind Mr Evans to put in oyster farms in Smoky Bay and did it to diversify from a bad run of years at their farm at Mudamuckla.
“It was almost financial desperation back in the day and our dad Don Zippel suggested it to us,” Bruce Zippel said.
“We were already looking for things to diversify into and keep the family structure in tact, so dad went to talk to Kiwi and came back from that discussion and said, ‘I think we should get involved’.”
Mr Zippel, who is the current president of Oysters Australia, said it was a difficult adjustment to start with.
“We worked crazy hours and there is nothing like being in debt to make you work very, very long hours and not see your family.
“In the end we got it to work, but it was a hard road to get there.”
Mr Zippel said the manual labour was also taxing with everything done manually when they first started.
“It was like we were farming back in the 1950s because we lifted everything — like the days when you had bags for wheat,” he said.
“The major change we have really seen is the development of all the equipment that helps us with lifting and handling and a lot of mechanisation and computer grading as well.
“Also there has been huge advances in genetics which is critical for the industry with things like disease resistance and climate change.”
Mr Zippel said it is a great industry to be involved in, despite the difficulties they have seen in the last few years with spat shortages.
“It is great to be on the cutting edge of an industry like the oyster industry … we do still have a lot of challenges ahead, but the thing we really discovered is it is just farming in a different manner,” he said.
And 30 years on how has the relationship with the brothers changed?
“People can’t fathom that three brothers can actually work together for that long … we can’t really fathom it ourselves, but we all worked out a long time ago that we couldn’t afford to buy each other out so [it is] one in, all in, or one out, all out.
“We have Gary’s sons and Ashley’s daughter working in the business now so hopefully there is that next generation that we see keep coming through.”