Future positive for walnut growers
The Pirongia couple are among several participants in walnut growing trials throughout New Zealand whose joint efforts are creating a positive future for the industry.
Ros and Nick bought 17 one-acre sections in the old Waikato frontier town in the mid-1980s. Self-described ‘applied ecologists and do-ityourselfers’ they set about planting a variety of crops – chestnuts, pine nuts, figs, almonds, hazelnuts, arguta (kiwi berries), heritage plums and about the year 2000, walnuts.
Nick is a local who grew up in nearby Pokuru. Among other things he studied climatology and ecology at Lincoln while it was still an agricultural college. Ros is a professional architect and retired last year from teaching at the Waikato Institute of Technology.
Their original holding has been shaved down to just over six acres and where once they were out in the country they are now slowly being swallowed by housing – some of the new sections sport large chestnut trees planted by the Empsons many years ago.
Members of the Waikato Branch of the New Zealand Tree Crops Association (NZTCA) for 30 years, the couple have taken part in a two-stage trial of walnut varieties. Beginning in 2005 the first stage aimed to discover the susceptibility to blight of Roadside 12, Franquette, Serr, Rex, Shannon and Waharoa varieties. Concluded in 2010, the trial discovered that the Shannon variety was most resistant to blight in the Waikato. Other varieties suffered, to lesser or greater extent, blight to the nuts and leaves.
Their second trial, now in its third year, is to monitor the uptake of the trace element boron. Boron is a toxic chemical but plays a vital role in cell differentiation in the trees’ growing tips. Too little boron leads to a condition known as ‘Snakes Head’ or bare stems. It can also result in deformity of the walnut shell, rot, and loss of crop.
The Pirongia property is fertile and set on pumice sand, river silt and Horotiu clay loam. The trial started with soil tests analysed by Hills’ Laboratories in Hamilton, to determine the natural level of boron, Nick explained.
“To me it is fascinating to see how different varieties exhibit signs of boron deficiency. Where boron was found to be deficient, we have used a slow-release organic treatment called Organibor which included boron, calcium and magnesium. Calcium is the trucker of all minerals, and boron is the steering wheel.”
A small producer, the Empsons’ crop totals about 500kg a year and is sold through car boot sales, Facebook contacts and until recently Ooooby. Walnuts crop about the same time in
April even though the different varieties Growing in the eastern Bay of Plenty near will flower at different times. The North Opotiki, Nick Nelson-Parker is also a American Serr variety is early to flower, member of the NZTCA, Walnut Industry while Franquette comes in last. Varieties Group and the New Zealand Farm of walnut are spread around the globe, Forestry Association. A trained forester, from North and South America to he made the decision early in life to get Asia and Eastern Europe. Most of the in to walnuts for the nuts and timber. traditional walnuts that came to New His oldest stand dates back to the 1970s Zealand were called English walnut with varieties selected from the United although they are not native to Britain. States, Canada, Holland, France, China and
Australia and New Zealand
''Walnuts are a demanding crop.They need the right climate and soil, which is why California produces such a large portion of the world crop. When the Tree Crops Association started looking at walnuts, it was disappointed that the Californian varieties did not do well here. The question was, could we produce walnuts of adequate quality in New Zealand?
''We thought it would be a matter of finding the right variety, but we discovered it was also a matter of good harvesting and drying (the nuts). Having the right variety is important for orchard and processing profitability.
''Walnuts need a free draining soil. The Californian walnuts need only about 800mm of rain a year and a little rain during spring and early summer, during flowering and early nutlet development. Hence the search for types that better handle our conditions and have adequate nut quality. A further constraint is that flowering is initiated by a cold winter while the tree is dormant, but the leaves are frost tender, so out of season frosts can be devastating. Most people have settled on Canterbury to establish walnut orchards in New Zealand.''
Nick Nelson-Parker said that after climate and soil, method of harvest is the next most important consideration and this is often determined by topography.
''Most people plant on flat ground and use customised machinery including tree shakers to harvest the nuts. We hand harvest using nets under the trees. Being able to handle the crop quickly is as much of a consideration as cost. Although the nuts drop over a couple of months, most come down in big dumps which have to be gathered and dried within a few days. The quicker a walnut is dried the better the taste.''
Walnuts get bacterial blight. Blight can be controlled with sprays but this adds to costs. They are prone to Phytophthora, which is why they need free draining soil. They can also get codlin moth, depending on the variety. The other major problem for walnut growing is time. It takes seven to 10 years for the trees to come into bearing. ''It is easy to get caught up in the argument about which variety is best. But there are many breakthroughs that growers have made recently that add up to a much
more realistic industry.''
Nick said that the walnut industry had been fortunate in having a long and stable period of increasing local demand for the product which had allowed it to
establish the industry on firm foundations.
''I think the future looks very bright. Local demand for walnuts is strong because of the health benefits. The New Zealand Walnut Industry Group is conducting a series of variety trials and have imported three varieties from Tasmania. If the results are anything like what we are getting from NZ Tree Crops Association variety trials on our place, we are on the verge of a whole new raft of varieties being available, cropping heavier and being less susceptible to disease.''
Meanwhile, despite appalling weather this season, Nick Nelson-Parker came away with half a crop – nothing like the failure that was predicted, with a good crop from his own selected varieties.
New Zealand Walnut Industry Group chairman Nelson Hubber came from a sheep farming background and got into walnuts in 2002 when he planted 900 trees on his Canterbury property not far from Frank and Margaret Brenmuhl, New Zealand's single largest walnut growers with around 4,500 trees.
The Walnut Industry Group has about 80 members spread from the Eastern Bay of Plenty to Wanaka. Nelson Hubber’s product is processed nearby at the co-op factory at West Melton which handles about 200 tonnes a year.
''The big majority of walnut growing is in the South Island as walnuts prefer a drier, cooler climate. About a third of the crop goes into manufactured goods in New Zealand including ingredients in biscuits, cakes, oil, walnut pieces and the foodie niche market.
''Walnut growing is a good, environmentally sensitive industry with a good long-term future. It takes ages to get a crop, but the trees can last more than 120 years. Currently New Zealand produces about 200 tonnes but that is likely to increase to about 600 tonnes in the next five to seven years. Currently these is no export, but our co-operative is looking at more sophisticated processing as the quantities increase.''
The world's major producers are California at about 600,000 tonnes a year and China at around 870,000 tonnes, Nelson said.
Further information can be obtained from the walnut growers' website https://walnuts.org.nz and the promotional
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