Flip Farm

May 2022

Technology developed by a Marlborough oyster farmer.

Technology developed by a Marlborough oyster farmer is today being used by more than 70 oyster farmers in 12 countries and was recently presented with the aquaculture innovation award at the Global Seafood Alliance Awards. The innovation gains made by Marlborough oysterman, Aaron Pannell of Flip Farm Systems, aligns with a key pillar of MPI’s ‘Fit For a Better World’ roadmap of growth in productivity. 

‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ is a proverb documented in many different languages, including the vernacular of Aaron Pannell. Indeed, need on several levels prompted him to develop a simple but highly effective system to grow and harvest oysters.

He calls his invention the FlipFarm System, and it is in use now on his own farm in the Marlborough region, as well as on 13 more he operates – and by more than 70 oyster farmers around the globe.   

Aaron and wife Debbie started Marlborough Oysters 10 years ago. Quickly demand went through the roof. Reaching 15 million oysters a year, they became  New Zealand’s largest producer of juvenile oysters, supplied to Northland and Coromandel farmers for finishing, before being sold to  consumers here and overseas.

However, in scaling up production to meet the market, they nearly came unstuck. Despite their dedication to quality and efficiency, they were beset by an oyster virus, then a predatory flatworm infestation struck wiping out almost half their stock. Added problems were marine biofouling, damage caused by storms, and the ongoing severe shortage of staff of sufficient physical stature to handle the heavy, cumbersome equipment used to grow and harvest the oysters. 

As Aaron and Debbie built their business, despite working long hours six days a week, Aaron tinkered with ways to improve the methods and gear they were using which involved floating plastic oyster growing bags clipped onto surface growing lines. He played with various ideas and tested some of them but nothing gelled until he experimented with some rigid hexagonal baskets he inherited when they purchased a small oyster farm operating in the bay next to their own farm.

First, he tried attaching the baskets to the growing line with various clips, and then struck on the idea of threading the line through the individual baskets, popped a few oysters in and left them in the water for a few weeks to see if this approach was the answer. 

Long story short, it worked. “When I lifted the line up, all the baskets flipped over automatically so their floats were down and when I lowered the line they rested on the floats again. I realised the baskets could rotate individually. And the oysters were in premium condition too.”

Under the old floating bag system it took Aaron and his staff a week to flip the farm’s 40,000 bags, a task that needed to be undertaken every couple of months to ensure the oysters remained healthy and grew. 

Using the baskets on the line, coupled with a specially configured vessel to run up and down the line, it is job done by one staff member in just a few hours.  “Even better, the oyster condition and quality improved dramatically and the annual mortality rate was reduced by 66 per cent,” he says. “It has reduced our workload significantly and made it a much easier task, allowing us to open doors for people who might not have considered oyster farming before because it was too physically demanding. The machinery is safe and easy to operate and it makes life easier for people working in the industry, which is very satisfying.”

Aaron says that the dramatic increase in the quality of the oysters produced with the FlipFarm system has enabled a complete change of business direction for Marlborough Oysters. “In the same way sheep farmers on-sell their lambs to other farmers for finishing, we used to sell the juvenile oysters we raised for other oyster farmers to finish. 

“We no longer do because the quality gains growing our oysters using the FlipFarm system mean we now produce a premium product we export directly to our overseas markets, as well as supplying the New Zealand market on a year-round basis in the same way as other Marlborough aquaculture products, like king salmon and greenshell mussels.”  

Recognition of their achievements has reached well beyond New Zealand. As well as collecting the Global Seafood Alliance 2021 Global Aquaculture Innovation Award, FlipFarm Systems won the 2021 Future Development Innovation Award presented by Seafood New Zealand, and a Good Design Australia award.