Australian Farmer of the Year James Brown is making waves in Australia’s pearling industry.

Story Terri Cowley   Photo Geoff Comfort 

James Brown stands barefoot at the helm of a small boat, sunglasses pushed back on his head. His voice is almost drowned out by the sounds of a short but wide waterfall that falls into the ocean behind him. “We’ve come out to see the huge tides as they drop down and expose these amazing Kimberley reefs,” he says to the enthralled tourists on board. “It’s actually a live reef that’s created by hard corals and coraline-encrusting algae, so this is growing right before our eyes. And this kind of formation, where you see this waterfall effect, you can only see in places like the Kimberley, where you have these gigantic tides.” 

Next stop is a roiling whirlpool that looks as though it’s about to suck the boat down into a void at the bottom of the sea. It’s obvious James enjoys the opportunity to share his backyard with visitors – a backyard that includes the azure waters of the Buccaneer Archipelago off Cygnet Bay, at the northern edge of the Dampier Peninsula in the Kimberley, WA.

But although he does the job well, James is no tour guide. He is a third-generation pearl farmer in Cygnet Bay and this year picked up the prestigious accolade of Australian Farmer of the Year, following his daring expansion of the business into Broken Bay Pearls, north of Sydney.

You’d expect James to wax lyrical about pearls when you get him talking. But he doesn’t. Instead, he focuses on the environment that the pearls are grown in, which he sees as a litmus test for how the planet is travelling. “We’ve had a front-row seat to the problems that climate change presents,” the 43-year-old says. “It’s devasting commercially, but brilliant from a big-picture perspective. That’s what really makes me tick.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #138

Outback Magazine: August/September 2021