Despite a difficult business period involving adaptation to drought, bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic, three local oyster growers have excelled in a prestigious food producers award.
Three of the five 2020 delicious. Harvey Norman Produce Awards' state seafood winners announced this week grow their oysters Far South Coast, with judges sent samples to their homes due to social distancing restrictions, and no award ceremony.
It was enough to pay a wage and keep your head above water.Wapengo Oysters' Shane Buckley
Previous winners Tathra Oysters and Wapengo Rocks were again on the list, with Mimosa Rock Oysters named for the first time.
With the oyster trade to metropolitan restaurants struggling due to COVID-19 regulations, many are overstocked, and growers, sellers and consumers have been forced to adapt to the new environment.
In 2018-2019, the NSW oyster industry produced around 76 million oysters worth almost $60 million at the farm gate. That trade has been hit hard by recent disasters, weather events, and now a pandemic.
Wapengo Rocks' Shane Buckley said a number of restaurants are slowly reopening, allowing 10 people to eat inside at one time, however issues including table cancellations in high-end restaurants have put a slow on trade.
"We are weathering it," Mr Buckley said.
"As long as it [restrictions] don't go into next year. It will be difficult.
"The restaurant market dropped out straight away. With the drought, closures due to the bushfires and floods we were only able to do two harvest before the shutdown.
"We couldn't really do much about it, but the general public rallied and got together to buy bulk and share them with their friends.
"This was happening all up and down the coast. From Brisbane to Melbourne. I was amazed by the response.
"It was enough to pay a wage and keep your head above water."
Mr Buckley said as many as 200 dozen oysters would normally be consumed in just one hour at a busy Noosa restaurant, and since the shutdown at least five of his Sydney restaurants have been home-delivering oysters to maintain sales.
Others in Melbourne are supplying live oysters to customers, staying open as a bottleshop.
Mimosa Rock Oysters made their produce available with a free, overnight delivery service in the metro Melbourne area.
Mr Buckley sells the only organic certified Sydney rock oyster growing in the world, a process which took six years, and forced the Australian Certified Organic to develop a "real benchmark for sustainability", Mr Buckley said.
"The industry is allowed to use treated pine for example, which isn't sustainable," he said.
The process involved removing all contaminating material, including anything that would shade the estuary floor, and using emerging technology like floating bags, he said. Mr Buckley is also purchasing a new system from New Zealand he says will "revolutionise his work".
"Where we are in the Bega Valley is the 'golden triangle' for rock oysters," he said.
"Where we are is all spring-fed water into the estuaries through national parks and development is low impact, keeping the catchment clean.
"The water is cooler so oysters take longer to grow, but that gives them more flavour.
"No other oysters get as rich and creamy as Sydney rock oysters."
Oysters from all three businesses will now be tasted at home by a Sydney-based judging panel this month to decide the 2020 Gold Medal Winners.
"Despite the pandemic and the challenges that we are all facing, this year's state judging was still as exciting as ever. The produce that we tasted in the 'From the Sea' category in particular was innovative and impressive," NSW judge Josh Niland said.
"It made me feel very proud to be part of the Australian food industry. We are, and will continue to produce world-leading foods."