Macadamias currently represent barely 1% of total nut sales worldwide, being greatly outsold by peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans and many other varieties.
But this scenario is changing rapidly, with the popularity of macadamia nuts growing at an unprecedented rate. So much so, that there is simply insufficient production to meet demand.
Markets in the US, Europe and China are already competing for a share of the approximately 155 000t of dry-in-shell (DIS) estimated global macadamia production for 2015.
And, as a result, international macadamia farmers, processors and marketers, including those in South Africa, are currently riding a wave of record-breaking macadamia prices.
Despite South Africa’s macadamia industry being relatively young at just over 30 years old, it has grown in such leaps and bounds that, with a current 46 000t DIS (1,5% kernel moisture content) projected national yield for 2015, and worth R2 billion annually, it is now the biggest producer in the world.
And it continues to grow rapidly.
SA-based macadamia processing and packaging company, Mayo Macs, expects to grow its handling capacity by approximately 20% per year for the next five years, according to CEO PJ Venter.
This increase is based on new macadamia orchards coming into production over this period. In 2015 alone, Mayo Macs expects to process and pack between 7 000t and 8 000t of DIS macadamias from 2 500ha to 3 000ha orchards.
A total of 99% of these nuts will be for export. Some will be exported as nut-in-shell (NIS) to Asia; the remainder will be sold as ‘cracked-out’ whole kernels and various styles of cracked-out pieces to the US and Europe.
This equates to about 17% of South Africa’s total annual macadamia production.
Established only 16 years ago, Mayo Macs already envisages becoming one of the world’s largest macadamia processors and marketers in the not too distant future.
“What’s important to our growth strategy is that Mayo Macs is currently 50% owned by 164 grower members who grow and supply us with nuts for processing, 25% by shareholders in the international nut marketing company, Global Trading, and 25% by the Mayo Macs employee management company. So everyone along our value chain has a vested interest in ensuring that Mayo Macs continues to grow and prosper,” Venter explains.
South Africa’s macadamia industry has its roots in Mpumalanga and the Levubu area of north-eastern Limpopo. Only more recently did production expand into parts of KwaZulu-Natal’s traditionally sugarcane and banana farming, and commercial forestry coastal areas.
In 2010, Mayo Macs identified KZN as a significant new growth point for macadamia growing and processing in South Africa, explains Venter.
The company already has two 4 000t NIS per year macadamia processing facilities: one at Nelspruit in Mpumalanga, and a second at Paddock on the KZN South Coast. The company also has a drying and storage depot at Levubu and another in KZN’s Empangeni area.
Mayo Macs focuses on helping its macadamia growers, particularly those in KZN, improve the quality and quantity of their production. In KZN, this responsibility falls largely on its technical advisor, Andrew Sheard.
Sheard’s seven-year working relationship with DR Mattison Farms on the KZN South Coast made a significant contribution towards this macadamia farming business.
The Mattisons set what is believed to be a world record of a 50,4% sound kernel crack-out from a 2,37t delivery of macadamia NIS made to Mayo Macs’s Paddock processing facility earlier this year.
“Sound kernel percentage is the percentage of the nuts that can be marketed as raw kernel, which is the edible portion of the macadamia nut,” said a statement from Mayo Macs on DR Mattison Farms’s achievement.
“The remaining percentage is made up of the nut shells and any defects or insect damage. South Africa has averaged between 27,2% and 28,5% sound kernel recovery for the past five to six years across all the cultivars.”
According to Mayo Macs’s grower director for KZN, Myles Osborn, establishing macadamia orchards is not a short-term or inexpensive investment. Seedlings, purchased from certified nurseries at a current cost of about R40 each, must be planted at 200 seedlings/ ha to 400 seedlings/ha.
Costly irrigation infrastructure must be set up and the growing trees regularly sprayed against pests such as stink bugs and fungal diseases. They must also be fed with expensive fertiliser products.
“Macadamia grafted seedlings have to be 18 months to 24 months old before being transplanted from nursery bags into on-farm orchards,” Osborn says.
“The seedlings are grown on order, so farmers have to wait for up to two years before receiving them. It then takes a further seven to 10 years before an orchard breaks even on its establishment and management costs of R100 000/ha to R150 000/ ha.
But by maturity at between 10 and 15 years, and as long as the orchard has been well-managed, it should be producing an average of 2t/ha to 5t/ ha of DIS macadamias every year until it’s about 30 years old, depending on the micro climate.
Depending on the quality of their DIS macadamia deliveries to processing plants, farmers are currently getting between R40/kg and R60/kg.”
According to the South African Macadamia Growers’ Association, macadamia trees must be planted in areas that receive an annual rainfall of between 800mm and 1 200mm. Those areas must also regularly experience daytime temperatures of between 25°C and 35°C.
While trees can grow in a variety of soils, these should be well-drained with no restrictive layers down to a depth of at least 1m.
While research is continually conducted into developing improved and hybrid cultivars for South Africa’s, and particularly KZN’s, production conditions, common locally-grown cultivars – originating overseas – include 788 Pahala, 741 Mauka, 816 (unnamed), 695 Beaumont and 791 Fuji.
Sheard explains that for all the cultivars and hybrid cultivars, barring 695 Beaumont, the nuts fall naturally to the ground, from where they are harvested by hand. Beaumont trees tend to retain their nuts, and must be sprayed at the appropriate time to get them to drop their nuts.From harvesting, the nuts are taken to an on-farm mechanical de-husker.
“For Mayo Macs’s growers, the NISs are then either cured on-farm or at one of our facilities down to a kernel moisture content of 5% to 10%,” Shearer says.
“These partially cured nuts are then delivered to our processing facilities where they are cured further to 2% to 2,5% kernel moisture content. Some of the nuts will be retained NIS for export to Asia while the remainder will be cracked out, the kernels graded and sorted according to the styles of the pieces, and the different styles packaged and then exported to the US and Europe.”
Dave Mattison, who owns and operates DR Mattison Farms with his son Richard, says due to their approximately 70% oil content, macadamias cannot be stored with a moisture content of 10% or above.
Failure to cure the NIS macadamias to below 10% before storage results in the kernels being attacked by mould or going rancid. Correct curing is essential as the nuts will spend an extended period at sea while being shipped to distant export markets.
“The main factor affecting kernel quality, though, is damage caused to the nuts by stink bugs while the nuts are still on the tree,” says Mattison.
“The bugs release an enzyme that eats through the hard shell, allowing the bugs to access the kernels inside for food.
“Other damage-causing pests are macadamia nut borer and false codling moth. We macadamia farmers work closely with Andrew Sheard and other experts to develop the most cost-effective orchard management programmes to generate the best quality and quantity macadamia harvests.”
High yields, top quality
Sheard says that Mayo Macs’s extension services regularly visit its grower members, especially those in KZN who are new to this type of production, to assist with aspects such as planning for new orchard establishment, cultivar-to-site matching, fertilisation and spraying programmes.
They also help set up and contribute towards grower study groups where production information can be shared and macadamia production standards benchmarked. There are already eight study groups of Mayo Macs grower members in KZN alone.
“As shareholders in Mayo Macs, we not only get income from our NIS deliveries to the processing plant. We also get paid dividends from any profits that Mayo Macs generates as a company. This inspires grower members to make the best effort to produce high macadamia yields of top quality,” Mattison adds.
Osborn says that the macadamia production in KZN is in a “huge growth stage”, one that Mayo Macs is going to take full advantage of.
“There may still be much for us to learn about and improve on, but we’re continually pushing the envelope and improvements are already being seen and benefited from,” he says.