We sit down for a Q & A with Jaco Swart who moved his young family from South Africa to challenge himself in the burgeoning canal-based salmon farming industry in Twizel.
Q)You have a Masters degree in aquaculture from the prestigious Stellenbosch University in South Africa – how did that prepare you for actually working in the industry?
A) During the time I spent doing my Masters, I had the opportunity to manage the trout research unit of the university. I also did some teaching at the university and made regular visits to farmers in the industry. This all gave me a wide background to what aquaculture is all about. I firmly believe that both practical skills and a strong scientific background is what we need to grow the industry.
Q) Why did you uproot your family and your life in South Africa to come and farm salmon in Twizel?
A) It was a combination of things. As a young boy I can remember tuning in to the radio, listening to the Springboks play the All Blacks. Brian Williams was my childhood rugby hero, names like Billy Bush and Sid Going still bring back memories of hard, tough rugby players – that’s where my connection with New Zealand started. Someone once said that: LIFE STARTS AT THE EDGE OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE. So what better way to test that than to move to a new country with 3 and 6-year-old boys? It was a combination of doing something new, something exciting and obviously for a better opportunity for us as a family. And yes I do support the All Blacks and there is no greater hero than Richie McCaw.
Q) What were your first impressions of New Zealand’s fresh water salmon farming industry when you arrived in 2002?
A) I was expecting the industry to be further advanced. They were still using pelletized diets and there were big gaps in the harvesting cycle. I could see that there was an opportunity to help grow the industry.
Q) You spent 8.5 years with Benmore Salmon, 6 as farm manager, how did the farm change over that time?
A)We started doing trials on extruded diets and soon proved that you can grow fish more efficiently and faster. We talked to NIWA about selecting our own brood stock and were able to close the gaps we had in our harvesting cycle. With all these changes we ordered less smolt but grew them bigger and over time increased production from 180 tonne per year to 350 tonne without adding any extra infrastructure to the farm.
Q) From one of the smallest producers, you moved to one of the largest, Sanford, to manage their salmon farm in Big Glory Bay. Why did you make the move from fresh water farming to marine farming?
A) Tommy Foggo approached me when Michael, the previous manager, left for Tasmania. It was a big step up for me and a steep learning curve – edge of your comfort zone stuff . It’s been the best 18 months of a 22 year career in aquaculture. We have a small dedicated crew down here and are privileged to work in one of the most pristine environments in the world producing the best salmon.
Q) What is the biggest difference between the two operations?
A) The scale of production is just so different from the smaller farms – it’s big boats, big pens, big nets and with it, big responsibilities. To me it is aquaculture in action, it is what it’s all about. Having state of the art feeding equipment and camera systems with which you can feed optimally and get the best feed conversions and growth rates. Being able to harvest 30 tonnes of salmon in the morning and have the fish back in Bluff by 3 o’clock that afternoon, you just don’t see that in the smaller operations.
Q) Which is the superior fish – fresh water or salt water salmon?
A) For me personally seawater salmon have a firm flesh and a stronger taste, whereas
freshwater salmon have a sweeter taste. I do enjoy a slice of perfectly cold smoked salmon and then the production method does not really come into play.
Q) Why after 18 months with Sanford are you moving back to fresh water to manage High Country Salmon?
A) The owner of High Country, Richard Logan, passed away recently and I was offered the position to manage the farm. When Richard was still alive, we started on a project that I am very keen to see through. This will give me the opportunity to put in a big effort to see both Richard’s and my dream come true. There is also something about the High Country, once it’s in your blood, it never lets go.
Q) High Country Salmon is set up as a ‘farm experience’ for visitors to get involved in the farming process– how will your Sanford experience fit with that model?
A) Salmon farmers tend to be a bit on the shy side, that’s why we all find these jobs in the most remote of places. For me it will be a new experience dealing with the public, but it is our means of an income so their
experience on the farm is important to us.
Q) High Country has been operated for the past 10 years as a family business – how will your past experience fit with this model?
A) Ultimately salmon farming is about staying in business and improving from year to year. It is important that we expand on the “salmon experience” for our customers and I see the opportunity to educate visitors
about salmon farming and its benefits.
Q) What do you see for the future of salmon farming in New Zealand?
A) I think it lies in education. As aquaculturalists it is our mission to educate the general public to what it is all about. We know that we are sustainable, we keep to our codes of conduct and do everything in our power to have a minimal impact. The general public don’t know about the science behind aquaculture and all the effort that goes into producing a world class product. I am tired of bad, sensational arguments
over ruling good science, and good practice. For the industry to expand we need to get people informed about the processes we have in place. Hearing about the health benefits of Omega-3’s is fine, but it is more than that. As farmers we need to choose our sites carefully and be open and transparent in what we are doing. If we have a well informed general public, we will have an industry that will grow and that we all can all be proud of.