The Macadamia Experiment

The Macadamia Experiment from Stoney Grove

By: Stoney Grove  26-May-2011
Keywords: Corporate Gifts, Gift Baskets, Food Products

Article by Peter Watson, Nelson Mail, 24 May 2011.

Growing 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.

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 Hope property.

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 until last."

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 says.

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 imported nuts.

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 Gallagher says.

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 industry".

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.

Keywords: Chocolates, Corporate Gifts, Food Products, Fudge, Gift Baskets, Macadamia Nuts, Mothers Day Gifts, Nut, Orchardists