A summer’s day, a plate of freshly shucked oysters and a glass of chilled white wine; it’s the iconic Australian entrée. But if there has been a significant downpour those oysters may be off the menu.
It may be frustrating for the consumer – but it’s financially excruciating for farmers who can forego revenues of up to $120,000 each day they can’t harvest.
And the spread of the POMS (Pacific oyster mortality syndrome) virus has proved devastating to some oyster farmers, such as Tasmania’s Barilla Bay Oysters, once one of the State’s largest which saw 70 per cent of its harvest wiped out by POMS in February this year.
Justin Goc, manager of Barilla Bay Oysters, is sanguine about farmers’ inability to control “Mother Nature” – but optimistic that technology may at least help manage some of her whims in the future.
Being filter animals oysters are highly susceptible to water quality, if there’s been a lot of rain flooding into the estuaries where oysters grow, they can quickly pick up contaminants that could make people ill. Farmers and regulators want to avoid that at all costs – and so when there is a perceived risk, oyster farms have to close until conditions improve.
Goc explains; “We have no control over what oysters consume – if there is something coming down the river that isn’t appropriate we have no control. We could be closed for a couple of days or a couple of months depending on what is coming down the river.”
The problem has been that in the past the industry has relied largely on rainfall gauges to assess when there may be a risk, and often been required to shut shop when there’s actually been no need. Analysis has revealed that around 30 per cent of closures based on rainfall gauge readings are in fact unwarranted – the water quality and the oysters are fine.
It’s a costly issue, as at certain times of the year – Christmas and Chinese New Year for example when demand is high – a day’s lost production can cost farmers $120,000 in foregone revenues.
Naturally no-one wants to risk consumer health, but there has to be a better way than slicing as much as a month a year off an oyster farmer’s harvest period?
Ag-tech business The Yield is now working with the Tasmanian Government and oyster farmers in 14 of the State’s estuaries, deploying a new system that uses in-estuary sensors, cloud computing and machine learning to offer a much better outcome for oyster farmers, which should ensure the tasty bivalve is back on consumers’ plates more often.
According to Lloyd Klump, general manager of BioSecurity Tasmania, The Yield’s solution is important in both ensuring food safety and managing the response to POMS, but it has an even broader impact for Tasmanian communities and the State’s economy.
“Even for a smaller grower a day’s closure in a busy season can be very significant. But there are indirect impacts also, Tasmania relies on these sorts of industries for local communities.” The Tasmanian oyster industry itself is worth around $23-24 million a year, but in combination with the community employment associated with the industry, it influences a far more significant share of the State’s economic infrastructure.
“For us it’s about innovation and solutions. We have had a problem which has been growing and POMS has exacerbated that. The timing of The Yield coming on with a solution is just perfect for us.
“If you have a problem then look to the innovators for your solution and The Yield are the innovators. This couldn’t happen if we didn’t have good cooperation between the Government, innovators and private industry.”
Ros Harvey, founder and CEO of The Yield explains that the underlying technologies could also have much broader implications for farming generally – for example allowing crop growers to know exactly when and how to irrigate. “We actually have a really clear purpose which is how we’re going to help feed the world without wrecking the planet,” she says.
To do that farmers and industry regulators need access to accurate, reliable and current data to support their decision making. The Yield’s technology gives growers new insight so that they can make better decisions faster.
In the oyster farming application, which has been developed in partnership with Bosch, data from in-estuary sensors is relayed via an Intel gateway to Bosch’s ProSyst software where it is then ingested into Microsoft’s IoT hub in the Microsoft Azure cloud alongside national weather data. Environmental data and near real time sensor data is combined and presented to oyster growers and regulators to enable faster decisions based on local information. The application delivers rich dashboard visualisations for the previous week, for today and for tomorrow. Microsoft Azure Machine Learning is used to drive The Yield’s patented predictive algorithms which underpins the Yield’s application.
While salinity measurement is clearly important in terms of identifying contamination risks, water temperature is equally critical in order to assess the risk of the POMS virus which can devastate oyster farms unless effectively managed. And, knowing that there is bad weather ahead, when it might be hard for crews to get out in the boats to harvest oysters, means oyster farmers are able to fine tune their rosters – again shaving cost and boosting efficiencies.
Barilla Bay’s Justin Goc is optimistic that having access to more information much faster will help oyster farmers gain a better understanding of what is happening and “how we can plan in an uncertain future.”
He already benefits from the insights on his dashboard, and now knows the salinity and temperature of the water, and has tide and weather details at his fingertips to help roster staff to go out to the oyster beds. In the future he’s hopeful that even more data could be collected, such as algal profiles in the bays which could provide insight as to which algae promote oyster growth, or potentially act as a POMS vector.
But ultimately he acknowledges; “It’s a hard business and you can’t control Mother Nature. “
While oyster farming is one use case, The Yield believes that its technology could be more broadly deployed in aquaculture and agriculture.
Ros Harvey says that Australia has a very strong global reputation for both agricultural innovation and food quality and safety. To maintain and grow that reputation, and also tackle some of the high costs associated with farming in Australia, she believes it is essential to make better use of smart technologies and data collected at every stage of the farming process.
While the initial deployment of the solution, which integrates technology from Bosch, Microsoft and Intel, has been focussed on the oyster industry, Harvey says that its platform technology has been designed for the much broader agriculture and aquaculture market.
To support the diverse application of its solutions The Yield has built application programming interfaces to its platform to allow researchers to take data feeds that can build knowledge and also provide a rapid pathway to commercialisation.
While based in Australia, The Yield has global ambitions. Using Microsoft’s Cloud as the technology foundation for the system will allow the solution to be rolled out internationally.
And while it may never tame Mother Nature, it may help the world’s farmers at least understand her moods.