The oyster is his world

By using the latest growing methods, the Ralstons have created an oyster that looks as good as it tastes. With John and Ben Ralston at the helm of the family business – making them the fifth generation oyster farmers – they are embracing innovative techniques to attract new markets.

Members of the Ralston family had been farming oysters since before Australia achieved nationhood. The family oyster farm is now in the hands of the fifth generation, who’ve embraced innovation and embarked on a plan of world conquest.

“The Ralstons first started farming on the North Coast of New South Wales, before my grandfather relocated it to the Clyde River on the South Coast of NSW,” says Ben Ralston.

Ben Ralston, 31, followed his older brother John into the oyster trade when he was 16. “I’m one of five boys and three of them chose to do other things,” he says, “But I always loved being out on the boat, fishing and being out on the water. Oyster farming is hard work, but it’s a good lifestyle.”

A pearler of a family business

While John Ralston takes care of the day-to-day running of the farm, Ben devotes himself to marketing. Determined to move with the times, both the brothers have embraced innovative approaches to attract discerning customers.

“Up until relatively recently, oyster farming meant chipping oyster off rocks,” Ralston says. “In the 1960s stick cultivation [planting sticks covered in oyster larvae in estuaries] allowed oyster farming to become big business. Now the sophisticated operators buy young oysters from hatcheries then grow them on what’s called floating infrastructure.”

Using the latest growing methods means the Ralstons have been able to create an oyster that looks as good as it tastes. “The problem with oysters grown on sticks is that they’re a bit ugly – long and sometimes skinny,” Ralston says. “They can still taste great. We produce a line of ‘Heritage’ oysters grown the traditional way that have exquisite texture and flavour. But the future lies in products such as our ‘Waterfall’ oysters.

“We make them using a system my dad came up with. You put oysters no bigger than a fingernail in a basket then tie it at a certain height that ensures it rolls around when the tide goes in and out. That tumbling motion creates round oysters that grow upwards rather outwards. The oysters are also much more consistent in terms of their size, shape and flavour, meaning they’re much more appealing.”

It may be hard to imagine, but oysters were once considered working class fare and had as much glamour as potatoes. Determined to change this, the Ralston brothers have taken an industry-leading role in promoting oysters as a luxury experience.

“John and I wanted to create a recognised brand,” he says. “My mentor has been Steve Feletti, Australia’s best oyster finisher, who mentored me about building up a brand and selling live oysters. I’ve also launched a side business called Oysters Unplugged. That involves us sending roaming shuckers to events such as a race day or wedding to serve up fresh oysters to the crowd. We’ve done events all across Australia and even in Singapore.”

Raising the oyster bar

While the general public may not understand the difference between a (sea) garden-variety oyster and a Ralston one, those in the know have been won over. Celebrities such as Deborah Hutton and Pete Evans are fans. Food critics have declared the Waterfall oyster “world class”. Many of Australia’s most acclaimed seafood restaurants are loyal customers. And now the Ralstons are pushing into Asia.

“Water quality is the major factor in producing a good oyster,” Ralston notes. “Our farm is in the cleanest river on the east coast of Australia and the whole region has great water quality. I’ve been involved in the creation of a company called Australia’s Oyster Coast. It is now exporting South Coast oysters into China, Hong Kong and Singapore. And that’s just the beginning; by fortunate coincidence, it launched around the time all those free-trade agreements were being signed. We’re now hopeful Australia Oyster Coast will become a well-known regional brand around the world, synonymous with clean, quality oysters.”

Ben and John are the most entrepreneurial and ambitious generation of Ralstons to emerge yet, but both remain focused on long-term sustainability rather than turning a quick dollar.

“That’s the thing about inheriting a family business,” says Ralston. “You want to make some money off it, but ultimately it’s not yours to do what you want with. You’ve got a responsibility to build it up to the best of your abilities then hand it over to the next generation.”