As a young man, Rob Hutchings was working as a marine biologist in the science labs at the University of Queensland when he decided to trade his lab coat for overalls and a new career outdoors. Freshwater Australian Crayfish Traders (FACT) launched in 1979, and Rob moved from Brisbane to Tarome in 1984, to a 200-acre property just outside Aratula. His farm has more than seventy freshwater dams, producing about one million mature red claw crayfish every year. He also farms live feeder fish, and live feeder shrimps and crayfish, which make excellent bait for fishing.
For many years, Rob sold his crayfish to overseas markets. These days, he’s happy to deliver his product locally, to most areas of South East Queensland, and because there’s no middleman, he can keep his prices down. (www.crayfishtraders.com.au)
When did you begin crayfish farming?
We started crayfish farming in 1977. I moved to this area, specifically here, in about 1984. I wasn’t living here before then, but I was farming here. I was living in Brisbane, and commuting back and forth.
I used to work as a technician for the University of Queensland. We were doing research on growing freshwater crayfish. Myself and another technician, when the research project finished … We were only technicians and we thought we could do it better, so we took it up privately. Took us a long time to have some success, I might add, even though we’d been doing it for a long time. We weren’t really successful for the first eight or nine years, I’d say. It took persistence.
Over the years, I’ve had a series of business partners, like my father, my sister had a share in it once, and two other local identities that were partners as well. A variety of people have been shareholders in the business, but now it is just me and my wife.
Who buys your crayfish?
Until about a month ago, we didn’t have any form of advertising. We didn’t take ads out in newspapers, we’re not in the Yellow Pages and we didn’t have a website. Because we’ve been doing it for so long, we had word-of-mouth sales. We were always over-sold. Everything we’ve been able to produce, we have always been over-sold, and that includes the other products we do as well. But the economic times aren’t so good at the moment, and we had noticed a downturn in demand slightly. We started a website to make it easier for people to get it, and now we’re over-sold again. We’ve worked by word-of-mouth for that forty years, pretty much. So, you might be talking to someone … ‘This guy grows crayfish. He’ll deliver them to your house.’ ‘Oh, I might try to get some. Can I have his phone number?’ They might ring me up, and, if they like them, they might tell someone else. People just ring, I tell them the price and it is COD, so we give them the crayfish, they give us the money.
We used to do all export at one point. In the early days, we were purely export orientated — Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the United States, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, China … We sold everywhere. I imagine it was five to ten years we were really into that. We would do a marketing overseas trip every year, going to see our clients where we sold product.
It used to be easy — export — because our products in some countries are so in demand. Look at the Scandinavian countries like Sweden, Finland and, to a lesser extent, Norway. If you come to Australia, people tend to think of koala bears and kangaroos. Over there, they think of crayfish. Crayfish is their national dish. Selling them the product is easy if you do it the right way. But it used to be we could deliver crayfish anywhere in the world, pretty much, for a dollar a kilo. We did one hundred to maybe three hundred kilos at a time sometimes. Now, it costs you [too much in paperwork and freight]. We still get enquires about export. When we get an enquiry, we take it seriously, but we refer it to somebody else. And the reason? I know, when we finally work out a price, it’ll be cost prohibitive. They might even get a shipment, but it won’t be regular business.
So now, all of our business is domestic. And, of course, we are talking different things here. We do the fish, the crays, the prawns, and we do all of these other niche markets as well. But you’re talking about the crayfish, and the crayfish is all delivered locally, as far as our vans go.
Do customers prefer large or small crayfish?
The larger crayfish are generally the most popular, but they’re more expensive. And price is a factor. Most people are looking for something cheaper to buy, so most people buy the small ones but would prefer the large ones. It is better for us to produce the small ones because we can turn over multiple crops in the year. The large ones, we can only do one crop in a year, generally.
Why did you choose to live in the Scenic Rim?
It was almost random luck, I suppose. When I was working at the vet farm at the university, doing research on crayfish, a guy was delivering hay. He lived on this farm in one of the houses here. And he asked what I did. I helped him unload the hay and we got to chatting. I showed him a picture of a crayfish, took him back to my lab, showed him the crayfish we were working with and he said he was really interested in that. He eventually became a partner in the business. We hadn’t started the business at that point, but, shortly after, we started the business. His name was Lyle Christensen. We just started building some ponds on his place. We didn’t do it like most people might, where you might make a reasoned decision: ‘Where’s the best place to do it?’ No. The guy that delivered the hay lived here and that’s where we are. Simple as that. So, random luck. Really good luck, too, because we have underground bores here that have just incredible water. Really good water quality.
Can you describe a typical day?
It is going to surprise you. Quite a few years ago, my wife and I realised we were dumb farmers. We were working seven days a week, seemed like twenty-four hours a day, and we realised we were better off on the dole than doing this. We need to have time off. So, we switched around to only working four days a week — Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and we started employing staff when we needed to on Friday, Saturday, Sunday. So, we all have a lot of time off. But, on those other days, we work.
Now today, for example, and it is a fairly typical day for me, I started work at 2 am and I haven’t stopped yet. Between 2 am and daylight, around
5.30 am, I am organising things around the farm for the staff. They’ll arrive at 5.30 on a normal early-morning start. I have three full-time staff and sometimes casuals. They’ll work an eight-hour day, so they’re not going to work a long day, but their starting time will vary. Whenever it is daylight — it might be six o’clock, four o’clock … But I have to go from pond to ponds that are draining, checking things. It is a bit complicated. Particularly with the prawns — if the pond is dry in the morning, everything is dead. So, if I do my job and everyone gets to work on time, there’s lots to do, lots to harvest and everything is good. If I do my job badly, they’re all standing around with nothing to do or everything is dead. Both those options aren’t good. So, I’m working early in the morning, but then we have that time off.
I actually like my job, too. I work with kids from the local schools, and often, when kids ask about careers (I am a biologist), I say to all the kids, ‘Forget about the money. Find something you like and do that.’ If you can get up every day and enjoy it — cause I do, I enjoy my job, I’ve been doing it for forty years — if you can get up and go to work and enjoy your job, you are blessed. Nothing else matters above that.
One of the jobs we do is counting crayfish. There are thousands of them. Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands. You’ve got a counter — click, click, click. Now, to some people that is boring. But, to me, we are chatting while we are doing it, we’re talking about the weather, the football on the weekend … You are thinking of other things, you know.
We will go around our ponds feeding. We drive in these green machines, so we’ll all get back to the green machine, hop on and drive to the next pond. Three or four workers — I am always the last back. They’re all sitting there waiting for me. As I am going around, I am looking at this, noting that, thinking of this, must do that. I am always thinking from the business point of view of what needs to be done.
What do you feed the crayfish?
Chicken pellets. You can buy bags of crayfish food with ‘chicken food’ written on the bag, basically. Nutritionally, they are basically the same. Australian freshwater crayfish are vegetarians, and they have a diet very similar to chickens. And they eat natural production in the pond to the point that you get a three-to-one food conversion ratio. Normally, if you are talking to a pig farmer or a cattle farmer, a three-to-one food conversion ratio means you get three kilos of hay, which gives you one kilo of beast. One kilo of food gives you three kilos of crayfish. And that’s because they are eating a lot of natural production in the pond as well. The chicken pellets are not all of their food. I say we feed them that, but they’re eating a lot of other stuff as well.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
One of the interesting things about working on a crayfish farm is every time you pick up a crayfish, you get a little injection of crayfish as they have little spines on them. It is tiny. It is inconspicuous. You mightn’t even notice it. But you are getting an injection of crayfish, and, after a while, your body becomes sensitised to them. It happens to all of our workers around the ten-year mark, and then you’re allergic to them. I haven’t eaten one for years. I haven’t cooked one for twenty years.