Dateline – Captain Hook, Big Island, Hawaii: With his seat belt and shoulder harness snug across his waist and shoulder, Larry Nixon shifted the Chevrolet truck into four-wheel drive for the steep uphill climb up the hill of lava rock to check on his hard-working field crew in the macadamia tree orchard picking up nuts off the ground.
Nixon complimented the workers on their work while checking on the harvest progress on the 4,000-acre MacFarms of Hawaii, located in the Kona district on the southeast side of the Big Island.
This macadamia nut farm is different from many others.
“All of the 300,000-plus trees grow in lava rock with no organic soil,” said Nixon, MacFarms’ business unit manager who led Western Farm Press on an impressive tour of the operation last October. He left the company at the end of the year.
Macadamia nut production in lava is a much different way to grow tree nuts approach to tree nuts compared to almond, pistachio, walnut, and pecan production on mostly flat ground in California, Arizona, and New Mexico.
The farm’s lava base was created by eruptions of the Mauna Loa volcano, the largest volcano on the planet which is still active. According to the website www.basicplanet.com, the first documented eruption of Mauna Loa was in 1843 with 32 eruptions since then. The last eruption occurred in 1984.
As the crow flies, MacFarms is 21 miles from the volcano. The Big Island has three volcanoes with Kilauea the most popularly known by tourists.
Nixon says MacFarms of Hawaii is the largest single contiguous macadamia nut ranch in the world, and owned by Buderim Ginger Limited of Australia.
The elevation from one end of the farm to the other is 1,200 feet to 2,600 feet above sea level. This steep incline makes the mechanical harvest of macadamia nuts virtually impossible.
“We are the only macadamia nut growers in Hawaii where the crop is 100-percent hand harvested,” Nixon explains.
Nixon previously worked for Sun Pacific and Paramount Farms, both located in Kern County, Calif.
The entire crop is grown conventionally.
Jeeps portage workers to the orchards to handpick the nuts which are placed in canvas bags. Filled bags are placed in the Jeeps and taken to the on-farm processing facility. Due to heavy wear and tear, tires on the Jeeps have a short life span of about a year.
Nixon says, “You need a four-wheel drive vehicle to get to 80 percent of the ranch.”
With such steep field inclines and declines, field workers traverse the grounds with a steady step and skilled balance. MacFarms has about 180 employees – all full-time.
Most employees are first generation U.S. citizens from the Philippines. Others include native Hawaiians, plus workers from Micronesia and Samoa. Nixon calls the employees “very dedicated and hard working.”
Fresh from Hawaii
MacFarms trademarked brand name is “Fresh from Hawaii.” About 80 percent of MacFarms’ crop is grown on the farm with the balance grown by other growers.
MacFarms’ business is split between bulk and retail. On the retail side, a third-to-half of the nuts are purchased in Hawaii. About 10-15 percent is exported to Pacific Rim countries with the balance sold on the U.S. mainland.
Major global competitors for Hawaiian-grown macadamias include South Africa and Australia.
Nixon says MacFarms production totaled 12.3 million tons of wet-in-shell nuts in 2014 with 2015 production estimated at about 15.5 million tons wet-in-shell.
Some of the farm’s nuts are shipped to California to companies to add candy coatings and seasonings, including Sconza Candy Company in Oakdale for candy-type flavorings and coatings. Nuts are salted and spiced at the Ready Roast Nut Company in Madera.
According to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, the tropical island state had more than 620 macadamia farms in 2014 on about 18,000 acres with a farm value of about $36 million (wet-in-inshell).
The yield average was 2,560 pounds per acre wet-in-shell. Gross prices for nuts averaged about 73 cents per pound.
In California, macadamia nuts are grown on an estimated 300 small farms, most in Riverside and San Diego counties, according to a California mac farm website.
Unlike most nut trees which bloom once in the spring, macadamia nut trees bloom three-to-four times per year at MacFarms. Multiple blooms occur, Nixon says, since temperatures on the farm never get cold enough. The coldest temps are in the 50s.
Each orchard block is harvested about every six weeks. Sprays and fertilization are applied sparingly since the product can quickly seep through the sutures in the lava.
The trees are watered by rainfall.
Nixon says, “Forty-five inches of rain are needed to grow a good macadamia crop.”
He adds that Hawaii macadamia growers have been plagued by drought in recent years with rainfall pegged at about 34 inches in 2013 and 38 inches in 2014.
For drought-parched California and Arizona, this sounds like a heck of a lot of water, and it is, but not quite enough to achieve needed mac yields in the Hawaiian tropical climate.
The average yield at MacFarms is about 3,300 pounds per acre, above the state average, with a range from 2,800 pounds to 4,500 pounds. Nixon says the farm’s nut varieties are proprietary information yet are Australian.
Originally, the land were MacFarms operates today was originally intended for five-acre homesteads. Macadamia nut plantings on the property began in the late 1960s and continued through the 1990s.
Tree spacing on the ranch is mostly 18X18 feet with some 12X18 plantings. Pest and diseases are relatively few in number, but include the macadamia nut borer and feral pigs.
Nutritionally, 400-600 pounds of nitrogen can be applied per acre annually by hand, plus some calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
If you think an almond shell is tough to crack, 300 pounds of pressure per square inch are required to crack a macadamia nut shell.
“It’s like a rock,” says Nixon.
MacFarms of Hawaii excels in two areas, he says - vertical integration and its full line of retail flavors and coatings.
All husking, cracking, and drying occurs onsite. Each wet-in-shell nut is about 30 percent moisture. Once dried, the kernel weight is about 28 percent of the total wet-in-shell nut weight.
The company is proud of its rapid turnaround from hand harvest to processing to packed 25-pound boxes ready for shipment.
Second, the company continues to expand its retail flavor line beyond the highly popular chocolate-covered macadamia nuts.
MacFarms has explored mechanized harvesting but the hilly terrain is the major limiting factor for heavy, vibrating equipment. Hollow lava tubes (tunnels) are found under the lava and most run parallel with the ground surface. The tube diameter can range from the size of a beer can to the length of a semi-truck.
“It would be difficult to mechanically harvest the nuts since there is not enough holding the trees solidly in the ground,” Nixon says. “You start pounding on lava rock and the trees can lie over.”
He adds, “Shaking the trees and using nets to catch the nuts would work on 15 percent of the orchard,” which Nixon says would not pencil out fiscally.
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Where would MacFarms of Hawaii like to advance in the next five years?
Nixon says, “We want to dominate the retail brand while keeping our bulk business in the islands. In five years, we hope our employees will still be here and happy.”