Leading entrepreneur Hugh O’Malley swapped his career in I.T. for Oyster Farming and is reaping the rewards ever since.
Reflecting on his venture into Aquaculture as a “labour of love”, fetching national and international sales is testament of the admirable success that the business has achieved to date.
The road to success
However when asked to unveil the background of Achill Oysters, Hugh cannot but draw attention to the fact that this isn’t a success story involving one independent individual.
The business journey has been supported by Hugh’s entire family circle and his staff base and he believes that without them, he would not be sharing his success story today.
Hugh acknowledges the support and advice that both his wife, Fiona and his father have given him down through the years.
“Dad has years of experience in fishing and business that has saved me making a lot of ‘learning’ mistakes. Fiona is a fantastic business woman which has been central to making the business what it is. My entire family has helped in turning bags, delivering oysters, meeting visitors, spreading the word and fixing equipment.” Hugh explained.
Achill Island, Co. Mayo has been home to the O’Malley family for at least five generations and they have always had a strong association with fishing.
Hugh’s blossoming adoration for the sector was there from the very start and with his father being a trawler; it was only natural for Hugh to also share that striking passion.
Naturally enough, Hugh became a regular reader of publications including ‘Fishing News’ and ‘The Skipper’, but there is one particular story that really highlights how Achill Oysters came to be.
Despite what many may think a documentary presented by Jeremy Paxman on BBC Radio 4 and a spree to a Tesco store is Cardiff changed his life forever.
Hugh was away at University in Cardiff in 1996 and was conducting a project on Marine communities and their financial viability.
“One summer, I was fishing salmon with my father and at that time, salmon has become the harvest that was keeping all the boats financially sustainable. I stayed up one night to listen to Jeremy Paxman and he was discussing fly-fishing.He started complaining about the fisherman catching salmon with drift nets and I thought that this was going to be the end of that industry and licences were all going to go. Sure true enough they were gone within a decade.” Hugh told That’s Farming.
The following day, the then student Hugh, took a spree to a Tesco store in Cardiff, a notable distance away from his beloved Achill and was alarmed to discover that cod was retailing at twice the price of salmon.
“I asked myself if you can farm salmon than why can’t you farm cod? My interest in Aquaculture started. After twenty years of following my own career, I was looking at this as a backup and I was wondering how I would do it.” Hugh explained.
Hugh recognised that oysters were the “way forward” and the rest is now history.
Achill Oysters was born.
Sky-rocketing to success
The entrepreneur obtained a licence and worked closely with many authorities including Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) and Bord Bia.
The first oysters went on sale four years ago and the business hasn't looked back since.
Benefits of oysters include being high in zinc and providing a good supply of energy, allows them to be a household favourite.
Achill Oysters has garnered the attention of many including leading celebrity chef Kevin Thornton.
“The oysters turned up at the restaurant in a Tesco bag.” Hugh laughed.
Shortly after, the business grabbed the attention of Alan Woods, Mr. Thornton’s head chef and he asked Hugh to supply the restaurant with oysters.
“We worked with Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority on how we could go about filling the order. We started packing the oysters in the back of a shed in Achill. The business just kept continued to grow.” Hugh explained.
Fuelled with enthusiasm and being of a rather ambitious nature, the rapid expansion of the business meant that the enterprise had to acquire additional facilitates.
A processing plant opened in Quin Road Industrial Estate, Ennis, County Clare and it continues to operate to this day.
From 100 trestles and a single wheelbarrow utilised for the carrying the bags, to the investment in top-notch technology, the plant has not looked back since.
The farm follows a traditional bag and trestle oyster farming method.
Achill Oysters raise Pacific Oysters (crassostrea gigas) and take them in from seed, all the way up to market size.
The majority of the oysters go at approximately 80-100 grams and some of the oysters go to the far-East at around 300-400grams.
“You don’t have to feed them as they eat whatever is in the bay. They add to diversity and they leave the bay a lot cleaner than when they started. For example they will clean impurities.” Hugh explained.
The seed is placed in a small mesh bag and as they grow, the bag is split.
Fifty bags can spring from an initial single bag from the beginning of the process, right through until the end.
Their diet is 100% Atlantic – filtered from the Class A certified wild waters off the west coast of Ireland.
They grow in a sandy bay, which lies atop an ancient, sunken peat bog which is responsible for the unique peaty fresh taste.
“There really is the taste of the sea in every mouthful.” Hugh said.
To get the correct size and shape, the bags are constantly turned.
“We aim to have a quality oyster. We have been well-mentored and we are lucky to have had an experienced farmer by our side that has provided us with invaluable assistance.” Hugh explained.
An inspiring philosophy- Sustainability
The business has been built on sustainability right from the very start.
“From the office right down and through to the farm itself, we have always strived to be as truly sustainable as possible. It is environmentally sustainable. We endeavour to do the best that we can at any stage.” Hugh said.
During his time at university which is now more than two decades ago, Hugh completed a course on Business Policy and Sustainability and was quick to identify the potential that this sector holds.
“At that time, I thought it was most certainly the way to go and sure enough that is the way that it has gone.” Hugh explained.
Efforts are made on the farm of Achill Oysters, to utilise small tractors, to look at the smallest possible engine that is required and to re-use shells, to name but a few of the activities.
Therefore, gaining Bord Bia Origin Green status was most certainly achievable for the family, but one has to commend the efforts and hard work of those involved in the business.
Information sessions are delivered at Agricultural shows and to schools in Ennis in order to raise awareness about the work that they do and the concept of ‘sustainability’ and what exactly it means.
Hugh came out on top in the Euro-toqs Excellence in Aquaculture award, making the business the first seafood producer to scoop an award from Euro-Toques.
“This year we identified the taste and we were very pleased to get gold star for our oysters, with this being the first time that we have applied.” Hugh explained.
Oysters are available to purchase directly from the website through their Online shop, and can be found on the menus of a number of restaurants around the country.
International sales also make up a large part of the trading activities.
“We have a lot of customers that keep buying off us overtime. Building partnerships with our customers is the name of the game.” Hugh said.
The future of Achill Oysters continues to shine bright, with many plans stirring in the pipeline.
Hugh has his eyes securely fixed on expansion and the growth of Achill Oysters.
An objective to grow the farm, to increase the number of farms that they supply and to offer many more employment opportunities in Achill are among some of the key areas of focus.
“Traceability is a major concept for us and we want to allow our partners, our customers and our consumers to be able to identify exactly where their seafood has come from. We will continue to work for that level of transparency. Already, we can tell you exactly where every oyster came from, who worked on it, which bay it came from and who packed it. We are working hard to easily present to our customer.” Hugh concluded.
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