Nuts to you!

When we think of food harvested from Australian farms, we often just consider grain, fruit and vegetables – but what about nuts?

Shaking pecan trees

Shake ‘em or leave ‘em?

Australia’s two biggest nut commodities are almonds and our very own native macadamias – grown in very different parts of the country.

Almonds thrive in hot summers and cool winters so are grown under irrigation in the southern inland parts of south-eastern Australia. Macadamias however, love the consistent mild conditions native to them around the Northern Rivers region of NSW, not far from the coast, where the optimum temperature range of 20-25 degrees is common.

There are other nuts grown in Australia too. Walnuts dominate the rest, while chestnuts, pecans, pistachios and hazelnuts follow.

Most nuts are harvested in late summer and autumn with almonds starting in late January, while chestnuts continue until June. Macadamias can still be dropping in September.

Depending on the tree, nuts either fall to the ground naturally, or mechanical shakers are used to grasp the trunk firmly and vigorously shake the tree until they drop. While pistachios are caught in a catcher as they fall, other species are simply allowed to fall to the orchard floor and are swept up with machines. Hazelnut trees are multi-stemmed so cannot be shaken and fall naturally.

Mechanisation is king

It is important to note that very little of the harvest process for any nuts involves much manual labour. Workers drive machines to shake the tree, sweep the nuts from the orchard floor, and transport them in bins behind tractors to a central point for trucking away. Even very small growers are likely to use a hand-pushed mechanical sweeper to pick up nuts. Many farms that grow nuts often grow other commodities too, and their regular workforce undertakes the work during harvest, so these farms employ few seasonal workers. So for anyone seeking work in this industry, the ability to drive a tractor is highly valuable.

At times there is a call for unskilled manual work. For example, in the mountainous Northern Rivers area in wet conditions, sometimes machines can’t get onto the macadamia orchards.  On these occasions manual rakers might be employed. And in the almond industry there is some manual work known as ‘poling’.  Nuts remaining after mechanical shaking are knocked from the branches with poles so they do not attract pests.

Nut jobs, and where to find them

The National Harvest Guide has calendars for each state that describe when the usual jobs are available, in what region, and what degree of seasonal labour is required. However, when the less common jobs come up, they are more likely to appear on the Harvest Trail jobs board when employers list vacancies.

A simple phone call to 1800 062 332 will make contact with the Harvest Trail Information Service.  Employers seeking workers, and people looking for work, can then be put in touch with one another.

Almonds and macadamias

To provide an idea of how much the ‘big two’ dominate nut production in Australia, the tonnages produced recently include almost 115,000 tonnes last season for almonds and just over 51,000 tonnes for macadamias.  Walnuts place a distant third with around 13,000 tonnes.

Almond production has increased significantly the last couple of decades. There were only 3,500ha of commercial almonds in the ground in 2000, but by 2020 there was 58,500ha. The greater Sunraysia region, including north-west Victoria and south-west NSW, has the biggest acreages. Although South Australia as at 2020 produced the second-highest tonnage of almonds, new plantings in the Riverina bring that region into second place by hectares planted, with much of their orchards still to mature.

A valuable export commodity, Australia vies with Spain as the second largest almond producer in the world, although there is broad daylight between us and California which overwhelmingly dominates production.

New plantings in the southern Murray-Darling Basin have decelerated somewhat due to an unusual water situation. Even if developments have sufficient irrigation water rights, there are concerns that the volume of water required may not physically be able to be delivered along the Murray River. In fact, some industry leaders have called for a pause in new developments in regions of concern.

The Northern Rivers region of NSW is the native home of Macadamias and that’s where they thrive best, but the very hilly terrain provides challenges. Moving machinery about, particularly when wet, and the logistics of planting and transporting anything in a mountainous region mean higher overheads and limited options for expansion. As a result, flatter country in Queensland, especially inland from Bundaberg, has seen major macadamia developments on vast acreages.

With macadamia production increasing from 35,000 tonnes in 2013 to 50,000t in 2020, expansion is steady, spurred on by a doubling of the farm-gate price in that same time. Only 4 years ago production was 60/40 in favour of NSW, but that proportion is now reversed. Macadamias are slow growing and at maturity are a large tree up to 15 metres tall, so with a 10-15 year lead-time until full production, Queensland will continue to increase its share of Australia’s native nut for some time yet.

The best of the rest

Around 90% of Australian walnuts are grown by the Stahmann Webster group. Their largest farms are near Griffith and Leeton in the NSW Riverina, as well as a property at Swansea in Tasmania. They also dominate pecan supply, with several large farms just east of Moree in north-west NSW, growing 75% of Australia’s production.

Many people are familiar with the chocolate treat Ferrero Rocher, which has a whole hazelnut at its centre. The Italian Ferrero company has invested heavily in growing hazelnuts in Australia with over one million trees planted near Narrandera in the NSW Riverina. Planting commenced in 2013 and the first commercial crop will be available in 2022, although the last of the new plantings will mature for another five years yet.

Although nuts may not have a harvest window that is as time-critical as fruit or vegetables, farms will still have an optimum time to collect their bounty. But it means that the intensity of large numbers of workers for a very short period is not a characteristic of nut harvest for any of the different species.  The exception is when rain is expected, which can damage nuts on the ground waiting to be swept up.

Factory jobs too

Processing facilities for de-hulling, drying, sorting and packing can be found in most regions where there are large areas of nuts grown. In most cases there are many factory-type jobs available that will last well beyond the harvest period, as nuts can be stored in controlled conditions for many months.  Longer term jobs are usually available at these facilities as the nuts continue to be processed long after the harvest is complete. Macadamias at Lismore and walnuts at Leeton can provide processing work for 8 to 9 months some seasons. So the next time you are thinking plant-based farm produce, remember nuts are a significant part of Australia’s production.