When Ken and Amanda Rowe sold their IT company in 2005, they wanted to find a business investment that met their core values, placed minimal impact on the environment and contributed to the community.
They did some research and found that oyster farms are great for the environment and also provide a sustainable food source for people, and so, in 2008 they took the plunge and bought an oyster farm on Kangaroo Island.
Shifting from white collar to blue collar, corporate IT to primary production, and inner city living to rural living was quite an adjustment for their family.
“We left an industry that we had worked in for almost 20 years and became the newbies in the oyster farming industry in SA,” Amanda said.
“We moved to KI as we had started our family and wanted to ‘free range’ our kids –we wanted them to have the freedom that we had as kids.
“Aquaculture, particularly unfed aquaculture like oyster farming was a way to connect to nature, help feed the population and do something great for the environment.”
The farm was already established on the water with a land base located on American River wharf, and the couple believed they had a quality product, they just needed the right branding, marketing and quality management.
“When we first bought the farm, the oysters were sold to wholesalers as just South Australian Oysters,” Amanda says.
“As part of our marketing strategy, we changed the name of the business to Kangaroo Island Shellfish and branded the oysters as Kangaroo Island Premium Oysters.
“We sought an exclusive wholesaler in each state that wanted to promote regionality of oysters and worked with these wholesalers to distribute Kangaroo Island Oysters.
However, prepared they were for the challenge, starting a new business in oyster farming required steep learning.
In July 2010, only three months before they opened The Oyster Farm Shop, the farm experienced a “once in 30-year storm event”.
“[The storm] ripped the farm apart – we had it filled ready for a big year.
“For months our staff and local yachties scoured the shore retrieving bags of dead oysters…it was heartbreaking.”
They opened The Oyster Farm Shop in October of that year to sell direct to visitors as reduced stock levels meant they didn’t have enough oysters to sell off island to wholesalers.
Amanda and Ken knew they needed to diversify, which led them to increasing the range of species they farm, creating a Research and Development program based around native species and restorative aquaculture, and implementing cloud-based farm management tools to improve their productivity and profitability.
They’ve since managed to overcome numerous challenges including a state-wide spat shortage, the 19/20 Summer Bushfires, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Their combination of past IT experience with their current knowledge of oyster farming has played a major role in their business’ success.
“Ken started managing the farm using journals to document farming trials, this eventually became spreadsheets on steroids which then became an oyster farm management app – miShell – that we developed with the SA Oyster Growers Association.
“miShell is cloud-based and runs on any device, revolutionising oyster farming by enabling business owners to manage their farm remotely.
“Data is king in this day and age, and growers can now see at a glance the quantity and value of the stock on their farm – which is great for the accountant and bank manager meetings – and means they will never miss a grade or lose stock because it is all tracked by miShell.
“miShell is being used by growers across South Australia, Tasmania and most recently New Zealand.
“Traceability in the seafood industry is also critical to food safety and providing provenance credentials to the consumer so that they know exactly where their oyster has come from.
“Also, with climate change impacting on water temperatures, and oysters being the canaries of the sea, collecting data from oyster farms could give us some indicators that can be used to measure climate change impacts in the ocean.”
By farming multiple species in the same water and focussing on restorative aquaculture, Amanda and Ken have made a positive impact on the environment.
“We now farm multiple species, including the native Angasi oyster, which we have worked closely with SARDI to bring these native species back into SA waters.
“This has led to us also being involved in native reef restoration projects with The Nature Conservancy and Landscapes SA.
“We are conducting trials to farm native mussels in our waters and are also preparing for seaweed trials.
“We now have a farm gate, The Oyster Farm Shop which showcases Kangaroo Island Aquaculture and sustainable seafood products like our Pacific and Angasi oysters, marron, green lip abalone and King George Whiting.”
Having taken an existing unsustainable business that employed four staff and creating a successful, sustainable businesses that employs a total of 15 local people in a remote, regional town on Kangaroo Island, Ken and Amanda know how to bring about a sea change in business.
After running The Oyster Farm Shop for more than a decade and now operating a total of four businesses, Amanda’s advice is to diversify and to make sure you surround yourself with people and tools that alleviate rather than add to your workload.
“Ensure your business is never relying on one revenue stream,” Amanda said.
“We bought an existing business and have also started new businesses from scratch across primary production, hospitality, tourism, research and development, and IT.
“We now have an awesome team at Kangaroo Island Shellfish and The Oyster Farm Shop in American River on Kangaroo Island and of course having cloud-based software used in both businesses allows us to manage remotely whilst we work in the other businesses.
“We have also joined with a great SA based software development team, Kiratech, who are working with us on the miShell app [Blue Farm Intelligence Pty Ltd] and just recently we have started working with new business partners to develop our accommodation at Antechamber Bay, Kangaroo Island.”
This year they have a full farm and have taken on their first trainee to grow their team.
Kangaroo Island Shellfish is now an iconic food producer on the island, and in South Australia, while The Oyster Farm Shop is a must visit tourist attraction on the island.
Aside from the overwhelming success of their business, most importantly, Amanda and Ken have been able to build their business from the ground up and made it work on their own terms.
“Running our own business gave me the flexibility to be with our children whilst they were young, which I am so grateful for.
“We could manage our workload around family commitments like work from home if they were sick, go to sports days and excursions.
“You do need to learn how to switch off and not talk about work when you work with your partner in life, we think we do pretty well at this…but don’t ask the girls what they think!”