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Farming success

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When they set up their salmon business as a side hobby, Frances and Peter Bender – the founders of Huon Aquaculture – could never have imagined they would create history by becoming the first fish farmers to be named Australian Farmer of the Year.

But that is exactly what happened.

On October 16, the Tasmanian couple were jointly presented with the prestigious national award which celebrates “rural champions both on, and off-farm".

The Australian Farmer of the Year Award, now in its ninth year and judged by an independent panel, is described as “supporting Aussie farming legends whose outstanding achievements are making a significant contribution to Australian agriculture".

And, for the Benders, this is definitely a big deal.

“Being recognised as farmers, not ‘fishers’ is so important because that’s what we do,” Frances Bender said.

“As farmers we will always face challenges, and the most important thing isn’t that you face these challenges, but how you face them.

“We are also here because we have the honour to work with many people over the years who have shared our passion and our drive to find more sustainable ways to farm salmon.”

Meantime, less than two weeks after they were declared Australian Farmer of the Year, the Benders received more big news, when the long-awaited decision on fish farming in Storm Bay was handed down.

On October 29, the State Government gave the green light for salmon farmers to expand their operations in the large bay south of Hobart, by backing the decision of Tasmania’s Marine Farming Planning Review Panel.

Premier Will Hodgman said: “This signals a new frontier for salmon aquaculture, enabling Tasmanian farmers to expand responsibly into some of the highest energy, most exposed marine farming conditions in the world.”

When you look at the unbelievable success of Huon Aquaculture, it is hard to reconcile how it all began.

Struggling with a young family, the Benders dabbled in fish farming on the side to complement the family cattle and sheep farm.

It was intended to bring in a little extra cash, and began in 1986 with one employee, and one fish pen in the Huon River.

From that small start, the company has evolved into one of Tasmania’s biggest primary industry businesses, and a major contributor to the State’s economy.

Along the way the Benders have risen to the many challenges that appear with building such an enormous enterprise from scratch.

Huon Aquaculture now employs 580 staff, most of those in rural Tasmania, and has a staggering $300 million annual turnover.

The company’s six million salmon also produce 25,000 tonnes of premium produce every year from 15 marine leases spread over an area of 1,000 hectares.

The Benders have also been at the forefront, as Tasmania’s aquaculture industry has grown into one of the state’s biggest industries.

“Seeing our industry grow to now directly, and indirectly, supporting 5,200 jobs, with many of our employees located in rural and regional communities, has been immensely satisfying,” Frances Bender added.

It is a world away from those early days, but as Peter Bender points out: being a large operation was never the aim, it was always about ‘doing it right’.

“Frances and I set out to be the best farmers we could possibly be,” he said.

“We never wanted to be the biggest; for us it is about doing the best we possibly can to ensure a sustainable future so that Huon, and the industry, are here another 30 years from now.

“We’ve faced a lot of challenges, and I think the biggest one is having to accept that some things, such as high temperatures in summer, or wild storms, are out of our control.

“We are a business that has a long-term planning schedule, so we have to plan for every possible eventuation, and mitigate against any impact that may occur in five years’ time.”

Now, with fish farming expanding in Storm Bay after six years of planning and consultation, Frances and Peter Bender are readying themselves for another chapter in the growth of Huon Aquaculture.

It’s the next major piece in the puzzle for Australia’s Farmers of the Year.

And, a world away from 1986, when Frances and Peter Bender began with one small salmon pen in the Huon River.

Image courtesy of Huon Aquaculture

9 November 2018

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