Victorian abalone pioneers win top export Agribusiness award

Tim Rudge from Yumbah Aquaculture

We spotlight a Victorian abalone operation that clinched gold at the recent Australian Export Awards (AEA), which measure businesses against their peers based on the strength of their international growth, marketing and financial strategies.

Since taking out the hotly-contested Agribusiness Award at the 55th annual Australian Export Awards (AEA) and the Governor of Victoria Export Awards (GOVEA) in late 2017, Yumbah Aquaculture – established in 1999 on a secluded beach at Narrawong north-east of Portland in western Victoria – is planning further export inroads that will elevate its standing as an Australian business trailblazer.

Sought after as a delicacy (like truffle and caviar) and prized for its sweet white meat with a texture like a scallop crossed with a fleshy mushroom, Yumbah’s abalone is already enjoying huge popularity overseas, particularly in northern Asia where abalone has been savoured for thousands of years. It’s often served sashimi-style, pan fried or slow cooked.

Current state of play

Yumbah – meaning large shellfish in the indigenous Yaygirr language – is without a doubt a regional Victoria business success story. It’s the largest abalone producer in the Southern Hemisphere and a leading exporter to Japan, Asia, the US and Europe, turning over $25 million annually, employing 80 full-time people and producing 700 tonnes of abalone each year at on-shore farms in Narrawong, Port Lincoln, Kangaroo Island and Tasmania’s Bicheno, with a wholesale in-shell price of $40 per kilogram.

Even so, winning the prestigious AEA has certainly given the company more recognition and the business has further expansion in its sights, says General Manager Tim Rudge.

“We’ve worked hard to develop a diverse market base that includes not just the traditional Asian markets but also niche markets, such as the US and Canada,” notes Rudge.

Japan is currently its number one customer accounting for almost 30 per cent of annual revenue, but a feasibility plan is underway that could see production more than double over the next six years. This would give the company the product volume required “to take a big step into China”, where sales are already experiencing a rapid uptake.

Quality control

Yumbah is the only Australian abalone farm company to own and control every aspect of its operations, from feed development right through to processing, packaging and sales, meaning providence is at the core of Yumbah’s brand promise; everything from water quality to feed composition is monitored and traceable. The Narrawong farm alone has 20 full-time staff that help create world-class abalone in specific size grades at fixed prices and guaranteed volumes, sourcing water from the Great Southern Ocean.

Innovation for viability

AEA judges commended Yumbah’s strategic vertical integration, innovative processing and customer focus but success didn’t happen overnight by any stretch. Abalone farming is a relatively new industry and Yumbah’s rapid growth since it was established in 1999 saw its farming operations and quality compromised by lack of capacity, particularly in value adding and feed supply.

To address the value adding issue, in 2017 the company commissioned a new state-of–the-art centralised processing facility in Adelaide’s Winfield and all Yumbah farms now supply bulk individual quick frozen abalone processed onsite to capture freshness. And to knock the low feed supply issue on its head, last year Yumbah purchased a controlling share in Australia’s main abalone feed manufacturer, guaranteeing feed security and enhanced traceability.

Combatting over-exploitation of wild abalone

In the past half century, over-exploitation of wild abalone fisheries has depleted supply, opening up an opportunity for aquaculture to fill the shortfall in places like China, South Korea, South Africa and Australia. There are 10 abalone farms in Australia producing 1000 tonnes and Yumbah supplies about 65 per cent of this total.

Yumbah pumps oceanic water to shore-based pools, copying the optimum environment for abalone. “To provide the perfect environment on land is not an easy task and we’re continually evolving our system and husbandry techniques to achieve this,” says Rudge, highlighting that patience is key. “It takes two-and-half-years for us to grow an abalone from egg to harvest size.”

Sustainability pledge

All Yumbah farms are licensed through state environmental protection authorities. “A unique feature of our system is that outgoing water from farms is monitored and, where necessary, treated so that the impact on the environment is minimal and controlled,” explains Rudge. “One of the main ways to reduce waste is to improve the food conversion rate (FCR) – a measure of an animal’s efficiency in converting food to muscle weight. A lower FCR is better for the environment and Yumbah now achieves one of the best FCR’s of any farmed animal both marine and terrestrial.”

Community links

Each Yumbah farm sponsors the Blue Whale Study plus local surf lifesaving and or football clubs and the farms regularly open their gates to school groups including special development schools – it’s this type of community focus that’s integral to the company’s success and the wellbeing of staff and their families. In recognition of original custodians of the word Yumbah, the company also sponsors the Yaegl Local Aboriginal Land Council, supporting a range of cultural and community activities.

Postcard setting

The abalone farming system is designed to mimic hundreds of perfectly manicured rock pools – a pretty impressive office location. “Working with a magnificent sea view and the sound of the ocean constantly in your ears makes even the most mundane tasks more pleasant and easy to achieve and staff have one thing in common: a passion to work in a unique outdoor environment that encourages continuous learning,” says Rudge.

“Abalone farming can’t exist anywhere else other than by sea and staff enjoy all the benefits that come with this privilege. Outside of work, many are keen surfers, divers and fishermen. We also work closely with universities and schools to ensure the best graduates and school leavers are employed.”

Tim Rudge’s tips for export success

  • Tip 1: Where possible, work in collaboration with other players in your industry because scale and continuity of supply is critical, especially in markets like China.
  • Tip 2: Remember that quality, supply certainty and price consistency are the key to building confidence in your markets.
  • Tip 3: Identify clients that you enjoy working with and share your aspirations, then make it easy for them to grow their business with you.

Find out how the Victorian Government can give you the 101 training with the Export Skills program to ensure you’re export ready.