Plett’s forgotten macadamia farms

Traditional knowledge holds that the Lowveld is the epicentre of South Africa’s macadamia industry. Not so, says Len Hobson, renowned macadamia consultant. The best area actually stretches from East London to Mossel Bay. Orrock Robertsen spoke to David Rowe, a macadamia farmer in Plettenberg Bay, about farming in this area.
Issue date : 05 June 2009

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Traditional knowledge holds that the Lowveld is the epicentre of South Africa’s macadamia industry. Not so, says Len Hobson, renowned macadamia consultant. The best area actually stretches from East London to Mossel Bay. Orrock Robertsen spoke to David Rowe, a macadamia farmer in Plettenberg Bay, about farming in this area.

After david and Patricia Rowe bought the 45ha Green Valley Farm just outside Plettenberg Bay in 1988, their plan to merely retire there quickly changed. David realised the potential of the macadamia trees growing wild on his farm. “The farm came with about 30 fully grown macadamia trees and initially I didn’t pay them much attention,” explains David. “It was only in 2002 that I decided to farm commercially with macadamias.”

The Rowes now have 1 200 trees at 600/ha. Though they’re operating on a relatively small scale, today they produce about 8kg of nuts per tree, or 4,8t of nuts per hectare. This is close to optimal. In South Africa, 4t/ha to 5t/ha is considered a good yield, and in macadamias’ native Australia it’s 3,5t/ha to 4t/ha. But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. When the Rowes started in 2002 the orchard produced a measly 4kg from the whole orchard, but this rose steadily to about 352kg in 2005. In their breakthrough year in 2007, they harvested 1,25t.

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Farming with macadamias
“Macadamias show good returns, but to even consider farming them you need time and money,” says David. It takes eight to 10 years to start showing good returns from macadamias. David says this puts off younger farmers. “It’s a pity, considering it’s such a stable product,” he says. Most of the area’s 30 or so macadamia farmers are older people, with the biggest producers farming about 4 000 trees. The southern Cape’s climate and conditions are similar to those in the state of Victoria in Australia. Macadamia farming there tends to be on smaller plots of intensively worked land and farmers do their own processing and marketing. That’s being duplicated to a degree around Plett, where farmers are exploiting their proximity to the busy N2 Garden Route.

The Rowes also process and market their nuts themselves. “As small farmers we really have no choice, but it’s also about what you can afford,” says David. But he admits processing the nuts was more difficult than he’d anticipated.
“Our quality and health specifications have to be exceedingly high to cater for the confectionary market, so we pay special attention to handling,” he says. Macadamia nuts are marketed according to grades, with whole unchipped nuts fetching the best prices.

Going to the guru
In the town of Wilderness, south of Plettenberg Bay, lives the “macadamia guru” Len Hobson, who’s been involved with macadamias for the past 50 years. Although farming mainly with mangoes now, he is said to have once had the biggest macadamia nursery in the world. He has consulted to farmers in the Tzaneen district in Limpopo for over 40 years.

“I tasted my first macadamia in 1968 on a farm in California during a citrus symposium – that is, the first that had been processed correctly,” says Len. “It was like heaven and I fell in love. I thought, this product is good enough to be marketed.”
He travelled to Hawaii soon after, for three reasons, he says. “First, the Hawaiians originally commercialised macadamias. Second, Prof Dick Hamilton of the University of Hawaii was getting great results from batch roasting and, third, I was planning on bringing some cuttings to South Africa.

“The correct roasting process is crucial to the nut’s marketability as it gives the product longer shelf life. Coconut oil is added in this process to keep rancidity at bay for as long as possible,” says Len. Prof Hamilton joined Len on a trip back to South Africa for a regional tour of macadamia farms from Malawi to the Cape south coast. They made a number of interesting discoveries. Although the Lowveld was the biggest macadamia producing area in the country, it was actually too hot for optimal production.

“The desiccating winds in October wreak havoc,” says Len. “Temperatures soar, and the trees discard their nuts no matter how much water is pumped onto them” (see box: Dropping nuts in bad weather). Macadamias like conditions that aren’t too cold or too hot. They require a mean monthly minimum temperature of no lower than 6ËšC and a mean maximum of “no higher than 25ËšC. They must receive at least 1 200mm of rain per year.

Macadamias in the Cape
“The best area for macadamias in the world is a place called Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii,” says Len. “In South Africa, Mossel Bay is said to have the most similar climate. Our field trip revealed the best area for planting macadamias stretches from East London to Mossel Bay.”  Len became interested in the macadamia industry in Plettenberg Bay after receiving a call in 2000 from the previous owner of Green Valley Farm, Denham Rodwell, who had found macadamia trees in his garden.

Denham had been using a dozer to clear the farm of bush. Daniel Cloete, who is now David’s foreman, recognised the macadamias for what they were, and that they were valuable. He stopped Denham from toppling them. “I went down there as soon as I could and I was amazed,” recalls Len. “These trees were growing wild, but producing twice what the integrifolia cultivars were yielding in the Lowveld. The Rowes’ orchard started with such a low yield because the new trees were young.

“I recognised the variety as Ikaika 333 or Beaumont, one of those selected way back in Hawaii. I introduced it into the area and have consulted on pretty much all the establishments down here. It’s a good cultivar, and not just for its prolific production. It starts bearing after three to four years where other cultivars begin at seven to eight years. It also makes a fantastic root stock onto which other varieties can be grafted later.”

Len says Beaumont has one weakness – it only produces 50% to 60% whole nuts. This suggests farmers should supplement the orchard with cultivar 816, which produces 80% whole nuts, but at lower yields. The resulting yield of 60% whole nuts should ensure the best prices. Today, the area’s macadamia industry is growing, though high land prices around Plettenberg Bay, Knysna and George are a constraint. At least 40 farms are doing their own processing. Len says several big producers are starting up in the Riversdale area. This holds great promise for the industry in the Cape.

Local consumers miss out
To some extent, the degree of specialisation required to produce nuts like cashews and macadamias, explains why South Africans pay such high prices for them. However, Len reckons South Africans are offered poor quality nuts for which they pay too much. “South African nuts are exported and, believe it or not, we then import substandard nuts for local consumption,” he says. “If I didn’t know as much as I do about macadamias, I’d have no idea what a real macadamia nut tastes like.”
Contact Len Hobson on 082 568 7018 or e-mail [email protected].     |fw