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Gerard Macdonald

Course: MSc Rural Business Management
Campus: SRUC Aberdeen (formerly Scottish Agricultural College, SAC)
Graduated: 2004

Gerard MacDonald is a man on mission – to make oysters more accessible and enticing to the public, both in the UK and overseas. Based on the Isle of Barra, one of the most southerly inhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides, Gerard became a shareholder/director of Tràigh Mhòr Oysters in 2013, when the company was first established.

It was while studying with SRUC that the idea of starting a business in oyster farming began to brew. From his own work experience on a mussel farm Gerard knew first hand just how much support was needed, so he chose instead to work with oysters which he perceived to be more lucrative.

Just two years in business and Tràigh Mhòr Oysters currently produces 25,000 oysters a year, with aspirations to grow, exporting up to 3 million a year, and expanding his workforce from six to 10 within the next 12 months.

Using a farming method for Pacific oysters which is not commonly seen in Europe, Tràigh Mhòr Oysters has grown in leaps and bounds. Instead of the traditional oyster bags and trestles method Gerard farms his oysters sub-tidally suspended under rafts, where they are held in trays stacked ten high and kept submerged underwater. Because the oysters are constantly under water their growth rate is faster and their taste is stronger and fuller. The pristine unpolluted waters surrounding Barra also enhance the exceptional taste.

However, as Gerard explains, setting up an oyster business in Scotland’s harsh climate has its challenges:

"We grow an oyster that doesn’t breed in our colder waters, it’s originally from Japan, so we have to buy in ‘seed’ (young small oysters). Until recently there were three hatcheries capable of doing this in the UK, but one has been found to be very close to a source of a disease, and can no longer be exported to Scotland. Currently there are only two hatcheries to use, which is a dangerous place to be if you want a reliable source. The other issue is the threat of Oyster herpesvirus, which is a virulent viral disease of the Pacific oyster, which will cause us havoc if it spreads.

“However the key focus for us is to work with the increased local consumption which has definitely increased during this year - the Year of Food and Drink. I am also exploring emerging international markets, including Asia and the Far East, as they will be fundamental to our expansion.”

Alumni newsletter photosGerard attributes some of his success in the shellfish industry to the Masters in Agricultural Business Management that he completed with SRUC (formerly Scottish Agricultural College, SAC) in 2004, via distance learning on a part-time basis for 2 years.

“At the time I came into the postgraduate MSc course  I was working for Marine Harvest in a managerial role. Marine Harvest actually funded me and my colleague through the masters which we did distance-learning and working full time. It was a hard couple of years juggling studies with full time work but was very worthwhile.

“We studied over two years covering three subjects or modules a year. Each year we spent three days on campus, which was a fair distance to cover from Loch Torridon to Aberdeen! We also took part in  a lot of evening tuition, e-blackboards and phoning in for teleconferences with the course tutor. I was quite relieved when the course was finished, but it was very interesting and it has proved very useful."

Gerard confirmed that being a distance learner was greatly assisted by his main tutor, Ron Sutherland, who he described as an excellent course leader who was well organised to support students studying long distance.

“The areas I found most directly applicable  were understanding accounts, human resources, marketing and economics. I found it helpful to be able to apply my new found knowledge “on the job” so to speak.”

Gerard offered some parting words of wisdom for the next generation of SRUC students and recent graduates considering embarking on their own business:

“Think very carefully, things will always cost more, add an extra 30% to the costs, and be prepared for the unexpected, but most importantly, don’t give up – if it’s easy, most people would do it”

Added: December 2015

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