Article by Peter Watson, Nelson Mail, 24 May 2011.
macadamias in Nelson is marginal, but Peter Watson meets a Hope couple
who, as the southernmost commercial producers in the world, are making a go of
It's been a hard nut to crack, but Sue and Charlie Gallagher are
starting to make headway in their bid to grow macadamias commercially on their
The horticultural novices have survived frosts, days of digging holes in
stony soil and some questionable advice to establish a promising business
growing a subtropical crop in a climate not naturally suited to it.
They had always wanted their own piece of land, and 10 years ago jumped
at the chance to buy a five-hectare apple orchard in Haycock Rd.
Deciding what to do with the property took a little longer. They weren't
interested in apples, and wanted something that would do well on the sunny and
supposedly frost-free site at the foot of the Aniseed Valley hill.
"I could only ever grow something that I liked, and at that stage
people said, `Why don't you grow olives?'
"I hate olives," Mrs Gallagher says.
"The other thing that grows well here is hazelnuts, and to be
honest, if I had a bowl of mixed nuts, it would be the hazelnuts I would leave
However, she loves macadamias. "We had been to the Gold Coast and
saw them growing, and said, `Why can't we do that here?'."
So in 2002, out came the apples and in went 200 macadamia trees sourced
from a local nursery. They had been in barely a year when a late winter frost
wiped out 60 per cent of them.
Undaunted, the couple replaced them, only for the same thing to happen
the next year.
"That's when we should have walked away from macadamias, but we
thought we should give it one more try, because the neighbours said the frost
was a one-off, and to be fair, it hasn't happened since," Mrs Gallagher
This time, they used grafted trees rather than ones grown from cuttings,
and protected their delicate trunks after receiving advice from the New Zealand
Macadamia Society that grafted varieties were hardier, although in hindsight,
they regret doing this, as the frost survivors have done better.
After a frost-free year, and armed with what they had learned by doing a
horticultural diploma at the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology, they
planted out the rest of their orchard, adding 600 grafted macadamias and 1000
almonds, the almonds providing protection from the wind as well as some
cashflow while the slower macadamias get established.
With many of their macadamias only just beginning to fruit – they
harvested fewer than 40 onion bags last season – they have had to be patient.
"Up north and in Australia they get a decent crop in five years,
whereas it's taken us eight years because Nelson doesn't have the heat units
here that are needed – it really is a fringe crop," she says.
Furthermore, they don't expect their trees to ever be as productive as
those in warmer areas, saying that at its peak, their crop will probably only
reach three tonnes.
In the meantime, what they do produce is quickly snapped up at the
Nelson Farmers Market on Wednesdays and at the Saturday Montgomery Square
market. They have sold all of last year's harvest, and will start to pick this
year's crop next month.
Their raw macadamias fetch $50 a kilogram and their almonds $40, with
consumers willing to pay more than supermarket prices for larger, locally grown,
spray-free nuts, which Mrs Gallagher says have a more intense flavour than
To make a little go further and to boost their returns, they make a
range of nut fudges, brittle (toffees), truffles and chocolates under the
Stoney Grove label, which has also proved popular.
"I love the markets, even standing there in the rain, and we've
always done well.
"We've got people now who keep coming back. It's great."
Mrs Gallagher, who owns the Tempz Personnel agency in Richmond with her
husband, spends about two days a week preparing for the markets, while he looks
after their fruit salad of an orchard, which contains 82 varieties of fruit and
nut trees. They feed family and friends, with the surplus being sold.
Mr Gallagher, a crane driver by trade, also makes the brittle and fudge
in a commercial kitchen they have built on the property, while she does the
packaging, roasting and chocolate.
To keep costs down, they rely on family and friends, who planted many of
the trees, to help out at harvest and with sorting the nuts, and regularly use
foreign volunteers from Helpx, a scheme similar to Wwoofers whereby people work
for part of the day in return for free accommodation and food.
"It's very labour-intensive. Everything has to be hand-picked,
husked, then dried in onion bags, cracked, sorted and bagged," Mrs
With an eye on the future, they have bought husking and cracking
machines from Australia for $15,000, so they can more quickly process their
growing crop, and plan to add a drying room. Nothing is wasted, with the husks
composted and the shells providing a good source of fuel for their winter fire.
"Once we have enough nuts to sell raw, we will probably cut back on
the fudge and brittle, but at the moment, we need it to make a go of
things," she says.
When their trees mature in a few years, they expect that the nuts will
keep them busy for much of the year, although they have no intention of sacrificing
their lifestyle and are keen to keep it as a "small cottage
As the only commercial growers in Nelson, they aren't interested in
joining a move led by Gisborne-based processor and nursery Torere Macadamia to
form a grower co-operative and marketing company and establish regional
clusters in a bid to grow the industry.
The Torere group has received government funding to help develop the
co-operative, but Mrs Gallagher says it would cost too much to ship their nuts
north, the returns as contract growers aren't high enough, and they prefer to
add value to their own crop.
Nuts aren't the only thing that sparked their interest in their
extensive orchard, where trees either "survive or die" and only the
grass is sprayed.
Among 100 heritage apple trees and a plethora of other fruit, berry and
nut varieties are 40 american pawpaws, which the couple are growing as a trial
for the Tree Crops Association.
The shape and size of an avocado, with yellow flesh tasting somewhere
between a banana and pineapple, they have quickly flourished and are already
producing up to 30 fruit per tree, which the Gallaghers have easily sold for $1
each at the markets.
With the pawpaws able to withstand light frosts and being grown at the
same latitude in the US, they see potential in them.
It's all part of the trial and error approach to growing that they
relish. "It gives you a good lifestyle, and this spot is perfect,"
Mrs Gallagher says.