Betting the (fish) farm in the far north

It takes a certain mix of determination and entrepreneurship to establish a business from scratch. Let alone create something from nothing in the wilds of the Northern Territory.

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Dan Richards, Humpty Doo Barramundi CEO

But that’s what Dan Richards and his wife Tarun and their family have done at their property near Humpty Doo, on the Adelaide River about an hour south of Darwin.

"We're constantly investing and innovating to grow a better barramundi, more responsibly.” – Dan Richards, Humpty Doo Barramundi CEO

In the early 1990s Dan’s father Bob and his partners had the idea of farming barramundi in a handful of ponds on their property, which is not far from Kakadu National Park. It had been the site of a 1950s rice project which was abandoned after just four years in operation.

By their own admission, it was a brave decision given the lack of infrastructure and services in this remote part of the territory. But through determination and ingenuity, Humpty Doo Barramundi was born and has since flourished as the business grew and adapted.

“Starting back in 1993, not very many people were out here in the wilds of the Northern Territory. It's pretty wild country,” says Dan, who is Chief Executive Officer. “We really didn't have the knowledge we needed at the start and we didn't have any money. So it was a long journey of pioneering.”

“In the early days, we would swim across the pond with a piece of shade cloth and stand in chest deep water, sorting out those fish into big enough, small enough, too big.”

They were checking the size of the fish so they could supply local restaurants with fresh, saltwater barramundi.

“We were supplying baby barramundi into the back doors of restaurants in Darwin. At one stage we had a bunch of fish that had grown out of specification for that market and so we sent them to the Sydney fish market,” Dan recalls.

“We actually achieved a better return from those than we had from all of the extra work we'd been doing to supply the local restaurants. And that opened our eyes to another opportunity.”

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New opportunities

That opportunity involved expanding production to start supplying farmed barramundi to all parts of the country – something the company has more than achieved in the time since. Humpty Doo Barramundi has grown from producing just six kilograms of fish a week to an output now of more than 130 tonnes a week around Australia.

They supply partners including Woolworths and Costco as well as PFD Foods and others in the food service market. And there’s still room for further growth given 60 per cent of the barramundi consumed in Australia is still imported.

What’s most impressive is the Richards family achieved this expansion while remaining independent.

When I visited Humpty Doo recently, I was struck by the passion Dan, Tarun and the whole team had for their vision – to produce the best possible barramundi in the most sustainable way.

“When you come to our farm now you see a highly sophisticated, professional operation,” Dan says. “For us, family is a really important part of this. We're a family-owned operation and with the sale of the Tasmanian salmon industry to international interests, we've become the largest Australian owned fish farmer.”

That passion extends to innovation and new technology, a love of new ideas and exploring ways to constantly improve their operations. They are always learning and adapting.

Sustainability is ingrained in all of their practices. They think about the impact their operation has on the local community and investing in ways to improve it.

“We've seen a real increase in focus and understanding of improvements that are possible around the sustainability of barramundi farming – improving the welfare and quality of the fish,” Dan says. “We're constantly investing and innovating to grow a better barramundi, more responsibly.”

“We've built a huge saltwater wetland that supports fish production. Water that's been in with the fish goes into a series of more than 20 kilometres of wetland channels that enable us to reuse that saltwater again and again. We've got a consistent saltwater quality fish all year round. But at the same time we've got next to zero discharge going out into the local water systems.”

Another aim of the project from day one has been to provide opportunities for the community in the Northern Territory. The family is committed to doing the right thing for Humpty Doo, the right thing for the Northern Territory and in particular the local communities.

They work with Traditional Land Owners in their region and established youth employment programs to bring young people into their operations where they receive training, skills and a viable career path for the future.

“We've got about 150 people working here and there’s huge diversity across the team. Nearly half of our team are under the age of 35. So, we really see investing in young people is crucial to the future of the operation,” Dan says.

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New markets

Humpty Doo Barramundi has also entered into a collaboration with the Indigenous community of Wadeye to help them grow tropical rock oysters. They are sharing their knowledge of aquaculture in a bid to help the community establish a commercial oyster operation of their own.

The Richards family are not ones to rest on their laurels. The future includes ambitious plans to potentially double the size of barramundi production and expand on its fledgling export operations into lucrative markets in Hong Kong and Singapore.

These are the type of companies ANZ loves to back as we’re in the business of helping customers companies move goods and capital around the Asia Pacific region and beyond.

That's in our DNA and something ANZ does better than most. And you need the grit and courage to make it in agriculture in this part of the world. It’s tough with variables and intangibles like floods, storms and the ever-present threat of crocodiles.

Despite an exclusion fence around the farm, as many as 25 crocodiles a year find a way through in search of a delicious Barramundi feed. However, no matter what the elements throw at Dan and Tarun Richards, they have persevered and found great success.

“A close relationship with the ANZ has been really critical to our success. You need a bank who understands your operation and can support you when it's time for growth, support you in times when things are tough,” Dan says. “Working with finance partners who understand that, and can see us through those cycles is really critical to success over the long term.”

Shayne Elliott is CEO of ANZ

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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