This article is sponsored by Rabobank
EMBRACING the Territory's wild and pristine environment – along with strong business acumen and a passion for aquaculture – has been fundamental in the growth of Australia's largest barramundi farm, Humpty Doo Barramundi, situated between Darwin and the Kakadu National Park.
Owner, Dan Richards is hooked on the dream and has a goal, "to make barramundi the white flesh fish equivalent of salmon" by streamlining production, integrating new technologies and positioning themselves as a premium product for the Australian and international market.
The Richards family have invested significantly in research and development over the last 10 years to meet the growing demand.
This includes the installation of bio-acoustic feeding technology to minimise waste and increase efficiencies, a self-sufficient saltwater habitat, advanced harvesting techniques and the inclusion of their very own on-farm packing and chilling facility ensuring reliable fresh product supply that has increased their profit margins.
In 2016 the Richards expanded onto adjacent land, boasting 700 hectares now with over 40 production ponds, including the addition of their 130ha saltwater wetland system.
The Humpty Doo Barramundi business has grown 514 per cent in the last five years, increasing their weekly production 10 times since 2007, from a mere 4 tonnes to 40t.
The family have a long history in the Northern Territory running their business on the edge of tidal section of the Adelaide River for 23 years, with five generations involved including the kids.
EDUCATION AND ADAPTATION
Mr Richards said they're always looking at the opportunities, the bottle necks and the challenges for development – "a successful business is like a puzzle you need to have every piece in the right place".
Mr Richards joined his father, Bob Richards an agricultural scientist, and stepmum Julii Tyson in 2007, who bought the business in 1993 in its humble beginnings producing just 6kg a week.
It's a moving feast and we've had no external capital, it's just the family reinvesting everything that comes from the fish – and a healthy dose of trial and error.
"It was very primitive in the early days, there was no road and we had to carry jerry cans of diesel out there," Mr Richards said.
"There was a hard learning curve over a long time – they killed the first batch of fish so we found out all the don'ts but we maintained a vision and were endlessly resilient."
Bob Richards brought a wealth of knowledge to the business acquired from his travels in 2002 as part of his Churchill Scholarship that has been integral in the foundations of their success.
"With these learnings in the years following we developed a saltwater wetland system that relies on the nutrients from growing the fish to support it."
The system captures and circulates marine water, reducing waste and stimulating the growth of marine algaes, "providing the fish with marine tones and flavours, which the market prizes".
"My father set about establishing a Maslow hierarchy of needs of how Humpty Doo Barramundi might succeed."
This hierarchy is about the base levels of needs for survival – "so keeping the fish safe from crocodiles and protecting them from eating one another, as barra are cannibals by nature".
"Barramundi have evolved in the estuaries and billabongs of Australia eating a diverse range of food; snakes, mice, fish and lizards – they're an opportunistic feeder."
"He created a set of priorities within the business, to survive, learn and then grow, which is applied to our fish and the environment as our foundation stone."
Mr Richards has an environmental management and ecology background and recently returned from his 2016 Nuffield Scholarship trip, visiting 20 of the top fish-farming countries, including Saudi Arabia (which is home to the world's largest fish farm).
"This taught me about what's required for barramundi and the Australian industry to move forward using world leading innovation and technology," Mr Richards said.
Humpty Doo Barra currently supply 35 business customers with eight whole-fish products, ranging from 300gm to 5kg.
It takes nine months for plate-sized fish to grow and between 18 to 24 months for larger 'fillet-size' fish.
Hatchlings arrive from a Queensland hatchery weighing 0.1gms and are nurtured and fed by a team of aquaculture professionals until they reach 30gms when they're placed in ponds and fed using the bio-acoustic feeding system.
The automated feeding system reduces costs by alleviating waste from both over and underfeeding of fish using a listening device that controls the quantity of feed dispensed based on fish behaviour.
"Barra like to eat at sun up and sun down and babies take a long time to eat so we can't feed everyone in that window – it's just not efficient when you've got 40 ponds.
"So Dad had this idea (the left-field thinker he is) to use automation like they do in the salmon industry, which distributes dry fish pellets that sink to the bottom.
"Barra don't have teeth so they flair their gills and suck their prey from as far as 10cm creating a 'boofing' noise.
"The microphones installed in the pond listen out for these 'boofing' noises that barra make, then audio information gets fed into dictation software that governs when to stop feeding them based on pond size, age and fish size," Mr Richards said.
MEETING THE MARKET
Humpty Doo Barra recently invested in more of the latest generation US-made fish pumps that lift the fish out of the water pumping them directly into a -2C saltwater slurry, sending them to sleep very quickly.
This technique differs somewhat to the Richards’ old harvesting tricks, wearing cricket helmets to protect their faces, whilst scooping 500kg of fish out at a time using seine nets against the bank.
"They're tough and rugged – I once got hit in the face by a 6kg barra and it broke my cheekbone," Mr Richards said.
"We haven't missed a harvest since 2011 due to flooding, so in 2014 when it flooded we got a helicopter to get the fish out – this shows the lengths we go to meet the customer's needs."
The fish are stored at 2-4C, keeping them clean and cold for premium eating with an estimated shelf life of 21 days.
In 2011 the Richards launched their national packing distribution business designed with expansion in mind to accommodate the growing demand.
"This was a real cross roads for us, we started with a shipping container in a field and an ice machine on top, selling to two wholesalers.
"It provided greater access and exposure that sent us on a growth path – there are customers that appreciate the quality and are happy to pay the premium price," Mr Richards said.
The business currently sells fish to a number of retailers and fine-dining restaurants in Australia along with international customers in China, US and Europe.
He plans to introduce a solid selection of premium branded products in the future by utilising a range of international fish processing technologies.
Mr Richards said the Australian whitefish space is overcrowded as there are a lot of species.
"Barra have great traits and are widely regarded in the Australian market, but not widely known globally so there is an opportunity there to position barra as a premium white fish.
"There is a lot of potential for further investment with the Chinese market – no one has heard of barramundi.
"Australian branding has a clean, green, safe food image compared to other international markets burdened by disease that significantly impacts viability.
"We have to compete on these attributes.
"Our family live and breathe fish – it's all we talk about and we have a relentless drive to present a better barramundi," Mr Richards said.
This article is sponsored by Rabobank.