THE river’s siren song drew Angela Riepsamen back to her family’s oyster farm.
Angela has been back at her family business Goodnight Oysters for five years with husband Leon, sending Pacific and Sydney Rock varieties to Australia’s hungry markets.
“It’s in the blood for me. I was brought up on the water like (her daughter) Lilly,” Angela says.
Nestled behind the old dairy pastures, where beef is moving in on the Shoalhaven’s lowlands East of Nowra, the Riepsamen’s base their business in a ramshackle shack perched on the point behind Goodnight Island, which gave the business is name.
The setting is the stuff of summer holidays and the a casual backdrop draws attention from the bustling modern business.
If you don't sort regularly the front runners get runted and the small ones fall behind
Goodnight Oysters’ land base is just below the northern tip of Goodnight Island, where the Crookhaven River spills into the Shoalhaven and spreads into a shallow, sparkling estuary.
With all the white sand, turquoise water and shady she oaks t’s hard to imagine a more pleasant place to work, or visit.
But Angela and Leon are focused on supplying the weekly haul of 500 to 1000 dozen oysters the send to market at present, although they may branch out into retail - bureaucratic red tape permitting.
Angela’s dad John Collison spent 33 years raising a family and farming the Shoalhaven and now the Riepsamans are continuing the tradition with their daughter Lilly and son Sam.
They took on her family business five years ago when Angela’s father “retired” to his new oyster venture in Far North Queensland.
Angela left to go to university and gained a degree then employment in science.
Five years ago she came back to raise her family on the river, when Leon gave up his job as an environmental scientists and learnt the ropes from John.
“A normal day is going out and bringing oysters in,” Leon says. “That could take all day and you could have 200 to 300 hundred containers of oysters to put out the next day.
“The next morning, you go out on right tide and pick up the next batch.
“If you grade them right they go back in happy and grow at a homogenous rate. If you don't sort regularly the front runners get runted and the small ones fall behind,” Leon says.
But as any farmer knows, the day to day yakka is the just the tip of the iceberg.
A handful of other farmers lease a share of Crown Land here, with similar set-ups to Goodnight Oysters, all linked by a track paved with oyster shells and bordered with old baskets.
But like so many unassuming farmers, the Riepsaman’s run a tight ship. As Angela says, there’s a strong market but only if you deliver top quality produce.
They’ve invested in high tech grading equipment, brought in labour saving baskets and environmentally friendly floating racks that help propagate seagrass a driver of inshore biodiversity.
“We are doing far less maintenance as we upgrade,” says Leon.
“We used to have to go out and do repairs every time there was a big westerly blowing. Now it can blow its guts out and you’d be lucky to see one container come loose.”
“The new racks we use move back and forward with the tide. They don’t have a static shade footprint on the bottom.
“The nitrates and phosphates that come out in their faeces makes it biologically accessible for seagrass to grow under our infrastructure.”
For Angela, good oysters come from good husbandry. Good taste, shell shape and plump meat condition is the holy trinity.
“You have to get stock management right,” she says, explaining the challenges that come with herding mobs of algae munching shellfish.
Racks can’t be too low, or mudworm can get in. Baskets have to come ashore periodically to manage overcatch (oyster spat and other undesirable that latch onto oyster shells). Water quality must be constantly monitoried.
And freshwater floods from the Shoalhaven’s huge 12500 square kilometre catchment are an ever present risk.
Nature’s volatility is a blessing and a curse for oyster farmers, and demand for Goodnight Oyster’s premium product is currently insatiable.
“We can sell whatever grow,” Angela says.
Disease has crippled spat production in major Tasmanian and South Australian hatcheries.
The popular Pacific variety is in short supply and its plump, creamy flesh will be in hot demand in the lead up to Christmas and driving up demand.
The Shoalhaven’s Pacific stocks were virtually wiped out by a mysterious mortality event last year, which claimed 90 per cent of their of Goodnight Oysters’ stock. It’s an unwelcome but not unexpected event for oyster farmers across the country.
Fresh stocks of Pacifics will take a couple of years to grow back and in the meantime Angela and Leon are building up their Sydney Rocks, which survived the wipeout but only comprised 10pc of their stock at the time.
“You’ve always got the weather hanging over your head but that’s the same all farming, isn’t it? In my first year here, before we bought the business, we lost all of our fattening leases,” Leon says.
“We budget over five years,” says Angela. “We expect three out of five to be average, or a complete wipeout,’ she explains.
Sustainability is a big part of the Angeal and Leon’s pride in their business.
“We are actually producing the most sustainable food on the planet,” Angela says.
“Nothing is added to the system, we’re just farming in the natural environment, which means we’re the first to pick up on any pollution. Day by day we’re helping save the world.”
As proud as he is, this is a bit too much for laconic Leon.
“I am going to need a cape,” he says.