Pearl farming is exotic and it sounds cool. We farm in the beautiful lagoons of the South Pacific as we drink coconut water on the beach, dance and listen to the sound of the Ukuleles. The pearls magically appear out of the water as we dive them out of the reef where they have been nurtured by pretty fishes and oysters.
Or do they ?
Not so fast. Pearl farming is farming. And it took me a while to understand that. Our farm is on the lagoon - that part is true. As for the rest - not so much.
Our land base is on the rural part of the Island where there are no resorts or restaurants, squeezed between 2 other farms; one is a cattle farm, the other a pineapple farm. The same farmer runs both of them. Over the years, we became very good friends. We have our habits we meet every Sunday morning to have a cup of tea and chew the fat as they would say over here. We chitchat 2-3 hours every week about everything and anything but most weeks we end up talking about his farming problems or my farming problems. And all these problems are very similar whatever the commodity.
Cattle, pineapple or pearls - farming is farming.
Ups, downs, and averages
My partner Danielle and I have been farming pearls for ten years with a fairly good measure of success considering the Fiji environment. By all standards we have a small pearl farm, and despite 2 cataclysmic Tropical Cyclones in 2010 and 2016 that really took a chunk out of our lives, we are still farming pearls.
Our pearls are very colorful and draw a lot of attention. Like every pearl farmer we get good crops and bad crops. We get big pearls and small pearls. We get pearls with spots and we get pearls with no spots. It is a game of averages. In a perfect world, you would want to produce only big round colorful pearls with no spots but the world would have to be perfect to achieve that. Some farmers are better than others though. They seem to live in a world that is a bit more perfect than ours. So we put a lot of effort on our quality of work and our work systems to try to tip our world in a more perfect one. We hire the best technicians from Japan, we monitor water temperature, acidity, conductivity, turbidity, algae content, etc. We have all the tools and, on paper, we are competent. Still, sometimes the numbers are not quite right.
Learning and Relearning
Over the years, I have become a different pearl farmer while Danielle has focused her attention more on the jewelry and retail side of the business. Understanding how other farms perform better took me time.
Few farmers share their secrets, if they have any. Pearl farming is not magic and is not rocket science. It is a well documented craft, and since all farmers need pearl technicians for a period of time during their harvest, the techs move around and talk a lot. With time I have learned a lot about how other farms operate. I now understand very well the engineering aspect beyond farming, and the biology beyond the process. With all the knowledge and hard work, I was supposed to be above average. But I was not. I was just average.
When we started farming, we were told then that we would do well if we kept an average pearl size on first seed oysters of 10 mm, and 12.5mm on second seeded oysters. Maintaining an average percentage of round pearls exceeding 10% was also a realistic goal. It is a big average to maintain but our type of oyster can produce these sizes and some farms in Tahiti, Indonesia and Australia reach that target easily.
We were told also that we would have to put money aside for a rainy day as oysters sometimes get sick and we can lose them - sometimes in very uncomfortably big numbers. Over the years we had to pinch in the savings to keep the farm going while oysters were on a health strike and dying. We had years with averages of 9.7mm and other years with averages of 10.4mm. We had years with round percentage in excess of 25% and other years with less than 3%. So I guess we were doing OK.
My focus while farming was always on the pearl production aspect. How to produce nice pearls. And it makes sense because in Fiji we do not have access to the large numbers of oysters available in Tahiti or Australia. Maximizing the averages is the only way to survive.
Using the best technicians from Japan is critical. Having a great or an average technician to do your seeding and harvest makes a big difference in yield - or so I thought. I would have to relearn and redefine that statement.
How to Double the Money ?
In 2016, an event affected our lives and our farm deeply and I would need to learn quickly how to do much better if we wanted to survive. Some farms (very few of them actually) can achieve super averages of 11mm on their first seed and 14mm on their second seeds. The difference between 10m and 11mm is only 10%, but down the line, in dollar value, it’s almost twice the dollars. That’s just how it is. Pearl value does not follow a linear curve, it follows a super logarithmic one. So if you move your production average from 10 to 11mm, a $100,000 bag of pearls becomes a $200,000 bag of pearls - and that can change a few things in your life.
In February 2016, average 10 mm farmer Claude got hit by a super Category 5 Tropical Cyclone. And as you can read in a previous blog, we lost mostly everything we possessed. The farm was not spared either. We had lost all our juveniles and that would take 3 years to rebuild.
Still, we had a few things going for us. We quickly found a new home, we had some cash, we had a good inventory of pearls for our shop, and our implanted oysters in the water did not seem to be affected. So with a bit of luck and heaps of elbow grease, we might pull through. But, I would need to do much better than a 10 mm average.
The Benefits of Drinking Tea
Pearl farming is a waiting game. You wait for your container to arrive from China with the farming material. Then you deploy the baby oyster catching lines and wait while the baby oysters grow on them for 18 months, then you wait another 6 months for them to grow bigger. Once they are big enough (10 cm or more) you seed the oysters and wait 12 to 18 months for your harvest depending on the growth rate of the pearl. After that, you reseed the oysters for a second pearl and wait again.
That is a lot of time to think. And that is lot of tea drinking with my neighbor to talk about my farming problems.
It is funny how our brain works - it listens to what it wants to listen to and it understands what it wants to understand. Sometimes, the obvious is right in front of you and you don’t see it. For years my lead Japanese technician has told me everything he knew about farming, and for years my neighbor has told me what a great pineapple farmer but how bad a cattle farmer he was. And only when I asked him why he thought he was a bad cattle farmer and he gave me an honest answer, only then I knew why I was an average pearl farmer and not a great pearl farmer.
The penny dropped and it only dawned on me then.
He told me this:
”I have bad, weak, unhealthy cows because I have bad grass. If I manage to get good grass once in a while, big fat healthy cows happen by themselves. I have great pineapples because I manage my soil very well. I just need to grow better grass. A great cattle farmer is a great grass grower.”
All those years I focused on pearl production when I should have focused on oyster management. And with hindsight, my Japanese technician was telling me this all the time in his own way, I was just not listening. I was actually listening to what I wanted to hear which was how to make a nice pearl. If I focused more on bringing good oysters to the table, maybe big nice pearls would just happen.
Having a great or an average technician to do your seeding and harvest makes a big difference in yield, or so I thought. This was not what my Japanese technician was actually telling me, but this is what I wanted to hear.
What he was actually telling me was that having a great or an average technician makes a big difference in production yield IF you have average oysters. If you have great oysters, an average or a great technician won’t make a difference in production yield - nice pearls will just happen.
Last month, we had our first harvest post cyclone with oysters that were raised after the cyclone under our new production guidelines. And now, 95% of my time is spent on oyster management.
I call it “Objective 33”.
Wherever you go in the world on pearl farms, we all use the same baskets. And it is easy to understand why - we all go to the same supplier in Japan, or if you’re cheap, you go to a Chinese supplier who makes an exact copy of the Japanese basket. We use these baskets to move oysters around and also to present our opened oyster to our technician who is going to seed them. If your oysters are 10 cm, you can fit 48 to 52 oysters in a basket. If your oyster are a bit undersize at 9cm, you can still seed them with a smaller seed and you can fit 65 to 70 in a basket.
I now can fit only 33 oysters in my baskets because they are big - Trump would say “bigly”. And that changed everything on the farm. No more disease, and big pearls.
At our last harvest we achieved 25% round pearls and that was great. But the really great news was the size with only 7% of our pearls under 10mm and an average at 10.9mm and a few pearls exceeding a whopping 13 mm on first seed.
Now you know one of my secrets - 33 oysters to a basket.
How to achieve 33 to a basket? Well, that is a closely guarded secret!