Nick Preston CPA and Humpty Doo Barramundi are on a journey to supply more of the highly prized seafood from the Northern Territory.
By Katie Langmore
Sandwiched between Kakadu National Park and Darwin lies the “blink-and-you-miss-it” town of Humpty Doo. With a population just over 4000, Humpty Doo has perhaps been best known for its pub, where travellers stop for a pie and pint en route from Darwin to the famous national park. However, the name is increasingly synonymous with another great Australian dish – barramundi.
Less than a year ago, Nick Preston CPA became CEO of Humpty Doo Barramundi – a farm that produces and distributes premium saltwater barramundi. The learning curve to successfully move into “biological assets” from a diverse background in pubs, industrial products and jewellery has been steep.
“The greatest challenge of my career has been working out what’s needed to grow this business over the next five years,” Preston says.
To do that, he has had to come to terms with the complex processes of running the farm, with its 60 staff and 24/7 demands.
“It’s been fascinating learning about the innovation of farming and [the challenge] has been much greater than I would have expected, sitting on the outside,” he says.
Even when it runs like clockwork, aquaculture is always at the mercy of the elements.
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve had a flood and had to helicopter the fish to another site and been through a cyclone where we lost power for four days. You can’t just sit a biological asset on the shelf [and because of that] there’s great resilience in farming in Australia.”
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Such resilience is the lifeblood of Humpty Doo Barramundi, which started as a small labour of love and is now – while still a family-run operation – Australia’s largest and the only barramundi farm in the Northern Territory.
“It’s quite incredible – the company has had 30 per cent year-on-year growth for 24 years,” he says. “I’ve never seen a growth chart like it.”
To grow the venture further, the company applied for – and is the first Northern Territory recipient of – a Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) loan. Plans for the A$28.7 million loan include improving the farm’s already impressive sustainability practices with solar power generation and enhancing skills training and employment opportunities for Indigenous Australians.
These are goals close to the heart of co-owner and chief of operations Dan Richards, whose family has guided the farm to its current success.
“We’ve always employed Indigenous staff, not because they’re Indigenous but because they’re local, hardworking people,” says Richards, whose HR manager is also Indigenous and therefore “[well placed] to provide support to our staff and cognisant of their needs”.
With some 60 per cent of barramundi consumed in Australia still imported from overseas, another company goal is to supply an increasing amount of that demand from within Australia, using the Tasmanian salmon farming industry as a model.
“We’re in a sweet spot here,” says Richards, a fourth generation Territorian, “partly because we’re an hour from a capital city so you don’t have a lot of the logistical challenges you would have setting up in a very remote site.”
“The greatest challenge of my career has been working out what’s needed to grow this business over the next five years.” Nick Preston, Humpty Doo Barramundi
The company uses cold storage trucks that arrive in Darwin with goods from around Australia and sends them back to all major cities with barramundi on ice.
“Then we’ve got pristine salt water from the Adelaide River,” Richards says, adding that the family has been able to work with the natural floodplain – which has no other farming use – and create a profitable farm without an adverse environmental footprint.
From sustainable farming to a delicious, healthy protein, Australians will likely see more local barramundi on menus.
“One of our greatest joys is seeing people in great restaurants around Australia enjoying a tasty piece of Humpty Doo Barramundi,” Richards says.
Two pieces of advice
Dan Richards: “There’s always a steep learning curve, so invest in learning. My father had a Churchill Fellowship and I’ve just finished a two-year Nuffield Farming Scholarship. We send our people all around Australia and the world to learn – and we were doing that before we grew and could afford it!”
Nick Preston CPA: “Don’t be afraid of mistakes and don’t use them as an excuse to throw in the towel. As in the old adage, try not to make the same mistake twice but be prepared to make mistakes and learn from them. It’s the only way companies grow.”