Cambinata Yabbies are found in the world’s finest restaurants, but how many diners are aware of the extraordinary woman who pioneered Western Australia’s aquaculture industry in the face of recession and drought to bring this delicacy to their table?
Mary Nenke, mother of six children, has known about yabbies since the 1980s because her husband, Michael farmed them as a hobby. Mary describes the transition from hobby to business as revelatory:
“Well, we always say God organised it, not us, because Michael had been farming yabbies since the 1980s as a hobby and we’d sell them off to get a bit of pin money, which usually got swallowed up by the farm anyway, you can imagine the expenses with six children!
“Our eldest son was home from university and he went out and caught 50 kilograms of yabbies and the wholesalers didn’t want them, tipped them back in the dam, and that’s why we say God organised it because somebody rang us that had friends that had relations with a restaurant in Perth, and they knew we were doing yabbies so they wanted 20 kilograms a week. That was our first market and in the first two years it grew like topsy!”
Mary and the family are part of a farming community in the wheat belt town of Kukerin, 300 kilometres southeast of Perth. Today their 2,200-hectare broadacre farm produces wheat, although previously the farm also carried sheep and there was a merino stud.
Being part of a close rural community, word spread quickly about the rapidly expanding enterprise and Mary soon found willing producers who wanted to sell their yabbies too.
“So we were selling our yabbies and then friends and neighbours came to us and said, ‘You’re selling your yabbies, what about selling ours?’ So we started to do that and we started to expand the market. Our son in Perth knocked on doors selling yabbies – it was a wonderful education – and the two girls, being home schooled, they used to do their mathematics sorting and weighing yabbies. They’d get up at 4 o’clock on a Saturday morning with us and help pack out,” Mary explained.
In just three years Mary started exporting yabbies to Singapore, Hong Kong and France. Her export markets now also include the United States, the Middle East and other parts of Asia and Europe.
RSM's relationship with the Nenke family goes back more than 50 years to when the Nenke farm produced fine merino wool. So how does a business relationship survive the test of time? Mary explains it in simple terms: “Really, it’s because we get looked after. They’re always available, they know who we are, what we do and I guess they’ve become personal friends".
Cambinata Yabbies’ success is built on long hours and hard work, but as Mary points out, it’s not all work and no play.
Each year in October the Nenke family hosts the Cambinata Extravaganza, an evening of fine food, wine and music in the Shearing Shed that attracts visitors Australia-wide and beyond. “Well, it’s absolutely unique. The whole idea was to promote the region and promote the foods produced there,” Mary said. “You come to dinner with our family, so we host it. We have a grand piano and a fabulous pianist and everyone dresses up. I say they come in their dag rags and dress up in their glad rags! It’s got candle-lit chandeliers and wrought iron candelabras (hand-made by Michael), so you dine by candlelight and then you can sleep in the paddock or stay in nearby B&Bs and hotels”.
Mary’s induction into the WA Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011 was an unexpected honour recently but true to character, Mary will not rest on her laurels. Mary’s vision for Cambinata Yabbies continues to evolve and change as the times demand, “absolutely (our vision continues to change)!
“Well, we have a saying, ‘God opens doors, you just have to step through them’ and so we have a new range we’ve started and that’s ‘Family Inspirations’. Last year was the worst drought on record, so that affected not just our broadacre farming but our yabby supplies, so it’s always about, ‘Okay, where can we go? What can we do? We’ve got the commercial kitchen…'".
Mary would willingly recommend RSM to colleagues and friends because of the family’s long and close association with the firm.