Putting Wonboyn on the (oyster) map

As we cruise along Wonboyn Lake, Kel and Caroline Henry point out the surrounding properties, recounting the stories of each as we pass them by.

Having bought their first oyster lease on the lake 24 years ago, they know the area like their backs of their hands.

And while it would be easy to sit idle and stick to the old habits of a business and an area they’ve known for so long, the couple are determined to continue working to further what Kel describes as “an emerging industry”.

Caroline currently serves as NSW Farmers Association Oyster Committee vice president, as well as sitting on the NSW Shellfish Committee, and says that while it is far from a new industry, it is one that is only just starting to hit its straps.

“We’ve always been proactive in the industry, and not just for ourselves, but for the whole of NSW,” she said.

“It’s important to get out and meet other farmers, see how we all do things and come up with ideas to help each other.”

Kel agrees, and says initiatives like the recent Narooma Oyster Festival have helped to put oyster farmers on the map and make people aware of what is out there.

“You can’t point to anything and say it’s been a result of the Narooma Oyster Festival or EAT Merimbula, or anything like that, but what it has done is put the spotlight on the industry and on Sydney rock oysters,” he said.

“People are aware of us, whereas in years gone by, a lot of people had never heard of Wonboyn or even knew we grew an oyster down here.

“These days, it’s pretty well-known from one end of the coast to the other, and not just by people in the industry.”

While their move into oyster farming in the early 1990s was based on a lifestyle choice, the couple say it is a much harder industry to crack these days.

“We’d fiddled around the edges of it for about four or five years, helping friends who were involved in the industry, and we got to a point where we decided to give it a go,” Kel said.

“Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it was a far easier industry to get into; it was just a matter of buying an oyster lease, and away you went.

“We were really looking for the country lifestyle; we had young kids when we first got into it, and it gave them that opportunity to have a country upbringing.

“These days, there is a lot more involved and you need a solid business plan, with the idea being to have profitable businesses straight away, rather than starting from scratch and building it up over time as we did.”

But although a lot has changed over the years, some things have remained the same for Kel and Caroline.

While many oyster farmers have taken the plunge and forked out six-figure sums for computerised grading machines, K & C Henry Wonboyn Rock Oysters have stuck with the good old hand-grading method.

They certainly know the value of hard work, generally working seven days per week over the busy Christmas and Easter periods, and slowing down to six outside of it.

The team of Caroline, Kel and daughter Adelle are currently bringing in around 50 or 60 bags of oysters each day, and manually grading them by size as plate, bottle and bistro oysters.

“It takes about three years for an oyster to grow, so when we bring in new stock they come in as maybe the size of a 5-cent piece, and after a year they’re about the size of a 20-cent piece,” Caroline said.

“As they grow, there are too many oysters in each bag, so we bring them all in and grade them to the correct size again.

“Basically one bag of oysters will become three bags of oysters, and we take them out to another lease where they will sit and grow for the next two years before they’re ready for the market.

“The other big thing that we have to do is artificially dry our oysters to keep them healthy, seeing as they’re all in floating bags, by going along and putting one bag on top of another for four or five days.

“We’ve got roughly 10,000 bags, and Kel does that every two or three weeks.

“So it’s a very hands-on job and it’s a lot of work, but we get to spend it together as a family, which is what we wanted when we started out.”

And while Caroline jokes that the cold winter mornings sometimes bring with them the question of ‘What am I doing here?’, you can tell this tight-knit team wouldn’t have it any other way.

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