The ‘I’ here is me, Hugh O’Malley. Although I was not born there, completed my education there, nor reside full time there, home to me is Achill Island. Our family has been living on Achill for five generations at least. We come from a long line of people who have made a living from the seas off Achill.
“This venture is about creating a family business that stands for quality, sustainability and good practice, with Achill Island at the centre of it.”
I was at university in Cardiff in 1996 and coming to the end of my undergrad, when I started thinking about what was next. One night listening to BBC Radio 4, I heard a documentary presented by Jeremy Paxman that started all this off. After hearing what he had to say, I realised there was likely to be an end to a way of life on my home island, Achill, off the west coast of Ireland. The fly fishermen were putting pressure on governments to outlaw salmon drift netting, and so the salmon fishing out of curraghs (small traditional punts) and 30’ half-deckers was coming to an end. The local salmon farm would be closest we would have to providing an indigenous fisheries-based industry on the island.
The following afternoon I was shopping in a Cardiff city Tesco grocery store on Albany Road, when I noticed that cod was twice the price of salmon. That was the epiphany: why was no one farming cod instead of salmon? Wild harvesting was dying out, and the future was aquaculture. If that was the case for salmon, so too would it be for other stocks. I decided there and then that I would be a cod farmer. Over the years, I put together a business plan and worked at this in the background.
“My career in high tech firms blossomed, but I always knew I wanted to be a fish farmer.”
Life gets in the way though. In 2003 I got sick, and when I was on the mend I realised that if I didn’t just do it, the farm would never happen. I signed up for an aquaculture course, run by the national fisheries agency, BIM, here in Ireland. I soon worked out cod farming was not viable at the risk level I was willing to accept, but oyster farming was a great opportunity. After five years I got the licence – by which time life had stopped being just about me, and had most definitely become about us. I got married, and was greeted by two children. My family situation meant I needed to have a dependable income and the farm would have to go on hold again.
I moved to Clare, from where I ran a tech company (VoiceSage), and schemed about one day opening an oyster farm. Whilst I grew the business, I read books, visited France where the oysters are grown and undertook market research. Eventually, I was able to bring my company (VoiceSage) to a liquidity event. With the funds secured, I was finally ready to go.
Eventually, in April 2014, the first 50g stock arrived at the farm and I was finally a fish farmer. We’ve had a great year on the farm with huge growth rates. The stock looks and tastes amazing. No road is simple, and definitely this one has been complicated, so it was no surprise to find that the wholesale market collapsed on us in Autumn 2016.
“Adversity is the mother of invention”
So I’ve decided to go down the road of marrying up my knowledge in technology with the oyster farm. We are currently in the process of creating an e-commerce solution to deliver our oysters to market, and have identified global channels to really get ourselves out there. Speaking of which, we’ve been working hard to get our name and products out on social media, all anchored down to our new website.
I first foresaw Achill Oysters as a hobby that would pay for itself. But as time goes on, I find myself drawn ever further into this way of life. Becoming gradually more familiar with both farmers and consumers, I saw a need to bring them closer together. Before I knew it, we’d moved from growing oysters, to packing oysters, to marketing oysters, to marketing other farmers’ oysters, to marketing other species.
“The business has grown a life of its own, and the consumer is leading the firm to a whole new industry.”
Today, the farm is ten times the size of where it was envisaged, and there are a fleet of vehicles, an innovative processing facility and an ever expanding workforce, all operating to deliver the best experience for our customers. We’re moving away from artisan oyster farming, and are working towards building a cooperative seafood business that connects Ireland’s suppliers directly to customers, at home and worldwide.
So the story continues. My wife and I have two little girls, and we as a family are burgeoning oyster farmers.
“The eighteen year journey continues, with a mighty crew and a resilient outlook.”
How we’re setting up the next generation