Mary Nenke counts herself lucky. In 2000 when she won the inaugural RIRDC Rural Woman of the Year for Western Australia she received $20,000 and visibility on a national stage she could only dream about.
“The Rural Women’s Award as it is now named made me so visible and the bursary enabled me to go to the United States to see the crawfish industry first-hand,” said Mary.
“I also used some of the money to go to the Boston Seafood Show where we were selling our products and I was fortunate to meet with our American distributor and make connections which I would not otherwise been able to do.”
Mary Nenke is a woman of many firsts. She is an aquaculture pioneer, founder and driving force behind Cambinata Yabbies where she’s intrinsically involved in all aspects of the Yabby Industry in Western Australia, from production to post harvest handling to marketing and exporting. She’s also a mother of six adult children and grandmother of seventeen. She was an accredited teacher of Billings Natural Family Planning for over twenty years and taught sex education until 2018.
Cambinata Yabbies started off as a small family concern but evolved into a sophisticated and integrated business, marketing yabbies purchased from a large groups of growers across the WA wheatbelt and Great Southern. It has also expanded into an agri and eco-tourism business after securing a grant in 2014 to build an ecofriendly village on their farm.
Over the years the Nenke’s created a unique Wheatbelt experience transforming their shearing shed into a function centre with polished boards candle lit by chandeliers where they hosted the ‘Cambinata Extravaganza’ for fifteen years. This annual evening of fine food and wine promoted all that is wonderful about regional fare, attracting visitors Australia wide, and even internationally and led to Mary recognising the need for modern quality accommodation in the region.
“We are blessed with a wide range of talents and qualifications within our family members including degrees in business, accounting, teaching, architecture, medicine; and studies and experience in aquaculture, agriculture, vet nursing and hospitality, marketing and banking. By maximising our combined family talents our business has diversified, developed, changed and grown.” she said.
Mary’s vision has always been to make rural Australia a great place to live, while offering rural women financial independence through the pursuit of new business ventures and alternative farm enterprises. Her vision is to have more people on less land in the regions.
“The most important thing in business is to look for the opportunities and work on how you can do things better.”
So why yabbies? In 1991 Australia was in recession and things were tight. Mary was home schooling two of her six children and her eldest son caught fifty kilos of yabbies to sell to a wholesaler who didn’t want them. Not knowing what to do next, they threw them in a dam and didn’t think much about it.
“Within an hour, a local farmer rang us and said she had a relation with a restaurant in Perth who wanted 20kgs of yabbies a week and the rest is history,” said Mary.
By 1993 they were exporting yabbies into the Singapore and in 1994 they built the largest Australian accredited yabby export establishment. Today they are the only Australian exporter licensed to export to the EU and over the years have sent yabbies to clients in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and Singapore. Sadly the current drought has decimated supplies. Mary has buyers ring her weekly from across Australia and Asia so she is confident when the dams in the southern part of the WA are full again Cambinata yabbies will once again be on more tables across Australia and international plates again.
Not surprisingly, the awards have kept coming. In 2006, they built a registered Export Kitchen for value adding and in 2007, Mary was named an Australian Export Hero. In that same year, Mary was named WA Citizen of the Year for Regional Development and inducted into the WA Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011.
Mary is also the founder and former Chair of” Farming Champions”, a group established to create awareness of the importance of agriculture to all Australians and redefining farming as an essential service. Farming Champions runs community events on behalf of farming families such as “Farmer On Your Plate” and it also raises awareness of the challenges and inequities facing Australian family farms from telecommunications, education and medical services.
“I am very passionate about raising awareness about the importance of our farming families to all Australians – that is why I am a councillor for the WA Royal Agricultural Society and why we as a group of WA women established Farming Champions Inc.” said Mary.
“I participated in a national debate on Big Ideas as the third speaker affirmative on the subject of ‘Foreign ownership of agricultural land and infrastructure should be strictly limited in 2014.”
Winning the inaugural RIRDC Rural Woman of the Year award in 2000, opened many doors and opportunities allowing Mary to pursue her commitment to growing opportunities for regional businesses and communities.
“Ideas cannot become reality without hard work, vision and a variety of talents. It is important to love what you do and where you live in all businesses but particularly in agriculture and tourism,” said Mary.
“We love sharing our part of the world with others and championing the importance of agriculture.”
Image: The photo of Mary is supplied by Royal Agricultural Society of WA