Recently our NSW Oysters project team - comprised of UTS researchers, DPI officers and technology providers from The Yield - have toured some of the major estuaries on the NSW coastline to conduct a series of farmer engagement workshops to formally commence our Transforming Food Safety and Profitability of NSW Oysters project.
The team toured four of the key NSW oyster farming regions - Port Stephens, Manning Valley, Pambula and Bateman's Bay.
The workshops were designed to open up early communication channels for the project, and to give participating producers a platform to air any doubts or questions surrounding Food Agility or the nature of our project activities.
There were some very important issues raised, the most common of which are listed below:
Q. How will the data from this project be used? If I participate am I just giving away my data for free to project partners for their own commercial use?
A. The overriding principle of Food Agility projects is that obtained data will not simply be collected and stored away for a rainy day; data will be progressed and directly built upon for the purposes of industry advancement. The benefit of having such a diverse mix of project partners is that the outcomes from this project will be multi-functional, and may be shared across many end-users.
For example, the NSW Food Authority are planning to use aggregated data to better regulate farm closures, whilst The Yield may use this data to create more accurate and more accessible predictive models for oyster production. Further, UTS will use the data to deliver real-world research that will develop well-educated students and share findings that spark opportunities for further research. Further applications of the aggregated data will likely be discovered as the project progresses.
Q. This project has positioned one sensor in each estuary and will be collecting biological samples from a handful of farmers. If this project will only be testing data from a few producers in each estuary, does that mean the findings will only be useful to them?
A. The project team has worked very closely to select a centrally-located position for the water quality sensor which will provide data that effectively reflects all the key metrics for the entire estuary waterway. Similar background work has been conducted with the producers chosen to collect bacterial and algal samples.
Ultimately however, it is important to note that it is not the individual data itself that will be useful in delivering project outcomes, but it will be the models that are created which are based on the relationships between data sets that will have the most impact. These localised models will be applicable across all farms within an estuary.
Q. If we participate in this project does that mean we'll be tied to this technology and be forced to pay for it once project funding concludes?
A. The installation of the waterway sensors required a capital investment that was covered by both Food Agility and financial contributions made by project partners, and there will be some ongoing maintenance costs involved in the upkeep and servicing of the sensors which will be covered for the first three years by project funds. Once the three year funding period concludes, we will be conducting a full cost-benefit analysis on the installed technology to determine whether it would be beneficial for productive estuaries to continue to finance these operating costs.
Ideally, the project will have been a success and we will discover that the ability to test water-quality in real time adds significant value to the profitability of oyster production and to the industry as a whole; in which case the estuary will be required to collectively continue to fund the sensors. If this is not the case, then there is no obligation on any of the producers or local industry bodies to commit financially to the technology and it may be removed from the estuary.
Q. How will the project ensure a good reliability of data that accurately reflects whats really happening in my estuary?
One of the most important notions when working with data-related research is that 'the research outcomes can only be as good as the quality of the data that is put in'. This means that accurate data is required to build accurate models.
The UTS research team have worked very hard to equip the selected producers chose for biological sampling with a method that incorporates a fine balance between user practicality and scientific validity. They will continuing to provide support in this sampling process over the coming months. Once these samples are taken on-farm they are transported back to the lab where they will be analysed and mapped using state of the art facilities and handling procedures.
Once coupled with the highly accurate and machine-learning-enabled real time water quality sensors, the predictive data modelling tools that are developed should provide accurate representations of what's happening at a farm-by-farm and estuary-by-estuary level. This level of insight will be extremely valuable in maintaining NSW's Oyster industry as one of the world leaders for both quality production and food safety.