Mercury (Hobart) - Magazine
The world’s their oyster
DUNALLEY FARMERS BOUNCE BACK
The year was 1929 and Barclay Gray was a young man living in a city house in Fitzroy Place, Sandy Bay. At 19, he knew nothing about farming – but when his accountant father bought him a property smothered with bush in rural Dunalley, Barclay was told, “Here you go, you work it out”. Close to 90 years on, Fulham is now run by Barclay’s grandson Tom Gray, who lives on the farm with wife Alice and children James, 3, and Barclay, 9 months. Overlooking the waters of Norfolk Bay, the Grays have three oyster farms and last December teamed up with nearby wine growers Matt and Vanessa Dunbabin to open the Bangor Wine & Oyster Shed.
Tom grew up at Fulham with his parents Penny and Sandy – and he’s never lived anywhere else. His parents still reside in the main homestead, while Tom and Alice live in one of the four farmhouses scattered around the property.
“I feel like sometimes I take the place for granted because I’ve been here all my life and work here all the time. But I wouldn’t give it up – I’m happy here,” Tom says.
Alice, a photographer whose books on historic homes and gardens of Tasmania are published under her maiden name Bennett, and Tom renovated their cottage six years ago,. They added a lounge room and deck, extended the kitchen and installed all new doors and windows – and now can see their oyster farms down the hill from nearly every room of their home.
“I’ve got my binoculars so I can see if my guys are doing any work,” Tom jokes.
But despite the luxury of picturesque views, Tom says it leaves him “no separation” between work and life.
“Because I live here and work on the water, I can never really feel like my day is off on my days off. I’m always looking out at something to do – if it’s rough weather, I’m always concerned that my livelihood is hanging off bits of rope.”
The Grays, originally sheep farmers, started farming oysters in 1998. Tom took over the family’s three oyster leases seven years later, and now works across more than 30ha of both shallow and deep-water oysters. Woken at 6am each day by his “alarm” (the kids), Tom heads down to the bay for work – and Alice will often take James to watch his dad on the job.
“There’s a little path down to the water and every second day James and I go down to find crabs on the rocky beach,” Alice says. “When Tom is working on the shallow water lease, James gets so excited to see his daddy in his waders. It’s all so close, which is really nice. We’re pretty lucky.”
With three of the farm’s four cottages occupied by the Grays, Tom says “it’s all pretty much a family affair”.
“It’s quite handy because I’ve got my aunt and uncle and my parents here. I’m always ringing them. My mum is particularly helpful with the children and my dad is helpful with the oysters.”
Alice adds: “Tom’s aunt and uncle often deliver the dinners to us when we have busy days.”
Though the family helps out with daily activities, life on Fulham hasn’t been an easy ride and when the Dunalley bushfires struck in January 2013, the Grays came close to losing everything.
“Every bit of grass you can see burned, right down to the water,” Tom recalls. “It started burning my fence, garage and trees in my backyard. Everything you could see was black.”
Overall they lost 47km of fencing, 5000 oyster baskets which were stored on land, a tractor, a boat, and Tom estimates 95 per cent of their property was burned. Using tanks of water and firefighting pumps on the backs of their utes, the Grays joined the crop-dusters and three helicopters water-bombing the property to protect their cluster of cottages.
“Sparks were landing on my deck up until about 5am the next morning. You’d have to be walking around all the time putting your house out. It was raining sparks all night,” Tom says.
For five months after the fires, Tom’s family spent seven days a week repairing fences – and with the help of a group of volunteers they continue to work on fixing the damage on a weekly basis.
“They’re a really tight-knit group of friends now, and I think they probably have an extended lunch break and a chat ... and they’re an amazing help.”
The oyster farm was back up and running after a week with the help of the community, including a father-and-son team who lost their home to the fires and moved into the shearing quarters – one of Fulham’s cottages.
“I thought it’d be best for them to move there because it was fully furnished and they could help get the business up and running again, and they’d have somewhere to live. They’re still in the cottage now.”
While the fires were a “mental challenge”, Tom says the fact that they still had their home gave them the confidence to push through.
Nearby friends and farmers Matt and Vanessa Dunbabin, who run a vineyard at their 6000ha Bangor Farm, also battled the fires but weren’t put off their dream of opening a farm-gate shop in Dunalley with the Grays.
Two months after the fires, Matt and Tom – who had been to school together – teamed up and applied for a grant to open their own business.
“Matt said, ‘How do you think wine and oysters go together’ and I said, ‘Pretty well’,” Tom says.
With the help of state and federal government grants, the Bangor Wine & Oyster Shed was built beside the Dunbabins’ vineyard – just a five-minute drive from Fulham – and opened to the public last December. “We try to keep it as local as possible,” Tom says. “For instance, you look out the window and you can see where the oysters are from, you can see where the wine is growing and you can see the cows walking in the paddock, that we make our own Bangor beef pies from,” Tom says.
“We also make our own apple cider with a friend who grows apples down the Huon called Three Farms Apple Cider.”
“We’re trying to source nice products and get to know the people. Our goal is to make it an experience rather than just a shopping outing.”
Offering freshly shucked oysters, cool climate wines and local produce, the shed is often visited by regulars of the area which represents the tightness of bayside community.
“It’s a farm-gate shop with a story behind it,” Tom says.