Australia’s Oyster Coast has rejected claims it is unfairly monopolising the industry, and says it has instead created 53 jobs and extended markets for 45 shareholding growers.
Last week, Wapengo Rocks oyster farm’s Shane Buckley told Fairfax Media he couldn’t compete with the company (AOC), which has received NSW Government and private backing.
"Our tax dollars are now being used against us – basically we’re funding a big corporation to take business away from us,” Mr Buckley said.
However, Eurobodalla Shire farmer and AOC shareholder John Yiannaros disagrees.
“I’ve been farming for 40 years – seen the ups and downs – it’s all positive,” Mr Yiannaros said.
“I don't understand what they are complaining about; if they have a good product, AOC will buy from them.”
Mr Buckley’s comments were aired amid claims the NSW Government was playing favourites with public money.
Growers from the South Coast’s eight major estuaries formed AOC to promote the region’s oysters in 2013. In 2015, 45 farmers, including from the Eurobodalla Shire, invested as shareholders to “aggressively pursue the high-end of the international market”. In 2016, AOC released its prospectus, hoping to raise $500,000 from the share offer.
Investment has continued: $10 million from private equity firm ROC Partners, $6.7 million from superannuation company First State Super, and $3.3 million from the Go NSW Equity Fund. The equity fund is a partnership, established last year, between the NSW Government, First State Super and ROC Partners.
Bateman's Bay oyster farmer Kevin McAsh last week told Fairfax Media he believed the equity fund arrangements were not transparent.
"There was no opportunity for any farmers to participate in this. The industry had no knowledge of it," Mr McAsh said.
However, AOC chief executive Mark Allsop said the equity fund investment was not a grant.
“The investment manager is ROC Partners,” Mr Allsop said.
“We approached ROC and they decided which of their funds to invest; this happened to include the equity fund, among other investors, such as Qantas.”
ROC Partners managing director Michael Lukin said his was an independent asset-management firm which invested in private business to get a return.
“We are accountable to our investors,” he said.
“The vast majority of investment in AOC is super fund money, but the small amount of capital from the NSW Government seems to have caught media attention.”
Mr Lukin said ROC Partners looked to invest in agriculture, and AOC met their needs: “However, we are keen to support the industry overall.”
“We are looking to develop the gateway into Asia – putting significant capital into the export channel – and to support greater spat (baby oyster) production, currently a limiting factor in the industry.”
NSW Farmers Federation oyster committee chair and Wonboyn oyster grower Caroline Henry said there was potential for conflict in the allocation of oyster leases by the NSW Department of Industry.
"The tender will go to the person who puts up the most money. You now have a company (AOC) that has millions behind it; that can out-price everybody," Ms Henry said.
“How can the government make informed decisions in an unbiased manner with a company they actually have part ownership in?”
However Mark Allsop said those farmers voicing concerns were invited to join AOC, but declined.
“They are still welcome to become shareholders now,” he said.
“We’ve created 53 jobs – regional people who were previously underemployed. This year we are spending one quarter of a million on marketing NSW rock oysters.
“Most of the region’s farmers are happy to see AOC in the market.”
John Yiannaros is one.
“It’s great a super fund is supporting Australian agriculture and not investing overseas, while still getting a return for investors,” Mr Yiannaros said.
“We have seen a rise in farm-gate prices. Yes, we have had some oyster shortages, but the rise goes higher than that, thanks to the standard AOC has set.”