Prod­uct de­vel­op­ment fu­ture of chest­nuts

The Orchardist - - Profile - By Ge­off Lewis Pho­tos Tre­for Ward

Value-added pro­cess­ing is likely to be the fu­ture of the chest­nut in­dus­try in New Zealand, ac­cord­ing to chest­nut guru and for­mer Ruakura plant sci­en­tist Dr David Klinac.

Com­mer­cial chest­nuts in New Zealand got off to a great start in the 1980s, at the same time as many other ‘al­ter­na­tive’ hor­ti­cul­tural crops, as the gov­ern­ment urged Kiwi agri­cul­ture to di­ver­sify.

Chest­nut pioneer Mur­ray Kes­tle es­tab­lished Top Nut at Gor­don­ton near Hamil­ton with a spread of around 1,000 trees, a pack­house, cool­store and re­tail out­let. An en­gi­neer, he de­vel­oped in­no­va­tive ma­chines to make the work of gather­ing and pro­cess­ing chest­nuts eas­ier. The New Zealand Chest­nut Coun­cil was formed to act as a na­tional grow­ers’ group and pro­mote chest­nut grow­ing in New Zealand, and with it a com­mer­cial arm, Chest­nut Ex­ports NZ Ltd.

All was go­ing gang­busters un­til the late 1990s when Kes­tle sold out to a group of in­vestors. Sev­eral years later the en­ter­prise folded.To­day, what was his Gor­don­ton pack­ing shed is utilised on a ca­sual ba­sis by mem­bers of the Waikato chest­nut grow­ing com­mu­nity, and the for­mer Kes­tle prop­erty has been cleared of all but a few of its trees. Once the fo­cus of 300 grow­ers, the chest­nut in­dus­try is now com­prised of about 100 grow­ers of whom about 50 ac­tively mar­ket their prod­ucts fur­ther than the farm gate or the lo­cal farm­ers’ mar­ket.

David Klinac de­scribes com­mer­cial chest­nut pro­duc­tion in New Zealand as a story of en­ter­prise, in­ge­nu­ity and prom­ise mixed in equal quan­ti­ties with frus­tra­tion.

“When Top Nut col­lapsed it took a lot of gear, ex­per­tise, and money out of the in­dus­try. All the ma­chin­ery was sold off around New Zealand. It burnt a lot of grow­ers. Still to­day there is no fac­tory. Over­seas buy­ers want qual­ity. We could sell New Zealand’s en­tire pro­duc­tion ten times over into Ja­pan, but no grow­ers have their own pack­houses.”

The chest­nut is a species of de­cid­u­ous tree na­tive to tem­per­ate re­gions of the north­ern hemi­sphere and chest­nuts have been pop­u­lar for hu­man and an­i­mal con­sump­tion for thou­sands of years. Chest­nuts are gluten-free, low in fat, and have more vi­ta­min C than citrus, which means they can be used in a num­ber of di­etary and health prod­ucts.

Given a free-drain­ing soil, New Zealand grows chest­nuts like mad. Ad­van­tages in­clude the ab­sence of dis­eases which ham­per grow­ers over­seas, which means chest­nuts can be grown in New Zealand spray-free.While chest­nuts are only a mi­nor part of the tra­di­tional Kiwi diet, they are pop­u­lar with the grow­ing Asian pop­u­la­tion and this de­mand is pro­vid­ing new im­pe­tus to the mar­ket.

Un­der­stand­ing the prob­lems the New Zealand chest­nut in­dus­try faces re­quires un­der­stand­ing the chest­nut it­self. The chest­nut is made up of a prickly outer husk or ‘burr’, the red­brown shell, a thin brown pa­pery mem­brane or ‘pel­li­cle’ and the nut it­self, which is ac­tu­ally a seed.

The pre­dom­i­nant New Zealand chest­nut is a hy­brid of Euro­pean and Ja­panese va­ri­eties – Cas­tanea Sativa the Span­ish or ‘sweet’ chest­nut and the Ja­panese Cas­tanea Cre­nata. There are sev­eral hy­brids found only in New Zealand of­ten re­ferred to by their cul­ti­var num­bers.

The Kiwi chest­nut grows and crops well, but as David Klinac ex­plains, the in­dus­try has dif­fi­cul­ties with pro­cess­ing and is ham­pered by labour costs, lack of a sin­gle-desk seller – as greatly ben­e­fits other ar­eas of pri­mary pro­duc­tion – lack of in­vest­ment in in­fra­struc­ture and lack of an over­all mar­ket­ing plan.

Whole nut ex­port is on­go­ing, but chest­nuts are tricky things to han­dle and prone to rot and fun­gal con­tam­i­na­tion. What would seem to be a south­ern hemi­sphere ad­van­tage – sup­ply­ing north­ern hemi­sphere mar­kets out of sea­son – has not turned out to be so, as tra­di­tional Asian and Euro­pean con­sumers want fresh chest­nuts in their chest­nut sea­son.

Pre­dom­i­nant mar­kets are Ja­pan, Tai­wan, Korea and other Asian nations. The United States is po­ten­tially a large mar­ket as its in­dige­nous species of chest­nut tree has been wiped out

by in­tro­duced blight – and chest­nuts are an es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ent in stuff­ing for the tra­di­tional Thanks­giv­ing turkey.

More re­cently the em­pha­sis has moved from sell­ing chest­nuts as a bulk com­mod­ity to the cre­ation of a range of prod­ucts which have the po­ten­tial to greatly in­crease re­turns: Bulk nuts sell for around $3 a kilo, David ex­plains, while value-added pro­cessed prod­ucts in­clud­ing chest­nut crumb, flours, soup, purée, liqueur, beer, stuff­ing, crack­ers and a range of an­i­mal food sup­ple­ments can sell for up to $30 a kilo. Or as in­di­vid­ual sweets given as gifts they can sell for $3 to $4 per nut.

“There is great po­ten­tial for a wide range of value-added pro­cessed chest­nut prod­ucts to be made in New Zealand, es­pe­cially those made with unique New Zealand-de­vel­oped tech­nol­ogy which is found nowhere else in the world, com­bined with our equally unique chest­nut cul­ti­vars.These can be used to make a va­ri­ety of new and novel ‘non-tra­di­tional’ chest­nut in­gre­di­ents, prod­ucts and applications not widely avail­able else­where.”

How­ever, chest­nut pro­cess­ing is rel­a­tively new to New Zealand and most of the ini­tia­tives are still small scale but it is hoped they will ex­pand, David says.

Due to the risk of in­tro­duc­ing new dis­eases, bring­ing new va­ri­eties into the coun­try is dif­fi­cult. Un­for­tu­nately the hy­brid Euro­pean – Ja­panese va­ri­eties that make up the large ma­jor­ity of New Zealand’s chest­nut trees have a nut that is (as David de­scribes it) “a bug­ger to peel.”

“The big Asian mar­kets like the nut nice and clean – with­out its pel­li­cle. That’s what they are used to and the lo­cal Ja­panese – Chi­nese va­ri­eties are easy to peel. In the north­ern hemi­sphere, the task of shelling the chest­nut and re­mov­ing the pel­li­cle is tra­di­tion­ally done by hand but this is time-con­sum­ing – so no good in a high labour cost na­tion like New Zealand.”

This prob­lem is be­ing over­come with the de­vel­op­ment of prod­ucts that in­cor­po­rate the pel­li­cle in­clud­ing whole­meal flours and an­i­mal feed sup­ple­ments. This has also led to the de­vel­op­ment of a cou­ple of spe­cific ma­chines: One ma­chine turns whole chest­nuts into ‘crumb’ which is then fur­ther re­fined into flour. It also sep­a­rates the shells which are turned into an­i­mal health sup­ple­ments in­clud­ing a de­worm­ing treat­ment for al­pacas. An­other sep­a­rates whole nuts from their shells.

Gor­don­ton grower and re­tired ar­chi­tect God­frey Larsen and wife Jackie bought their chest­nut farm 12 years ago. It had al­ready been planted in about 500 trees of the 1002, 1005 and 1015 cul­ti­vars.

The Larsens rely on the pick-your-own mar­ket and sell about 5 tonnes of nuts a year, mostly to Asian cus­tomers and a few eastern Euro­peans.

“We can see the po­ten­tial in the in­dus­try, but we see our­selves as grow­ers and we don’t want the ex­pense of in­stalling a food-grade kitchen. It’s a chicken and egg sit­u­a­tion – the prod­ucts are not on the shelves so peo­ple don’t buy them, so there’s no de­mand.As an in­dus­try we need to de­velop non-per­ish­able prod­ucts and per­suade peo­ple to in­cor­po­rate chest­nuts in their diet.”

World­wide con­sump­tion of chest­nuts is es­ti­mated at more than 470,000 tonnes. Most pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion is in the north­ern hemi­sphere. Euro­pean pro­duc­tion has fallen dra­mat­i­cally and the lead­ing pro­duc­ers now in­clude China, Turkey, Korea and Ja­pan. De­mand con­tin­ues to out­strip sup­ply.

In­for­ma­tion on grow­ing, har­vest­ing and us­ing chest­nuts can be found by vis­it­ing the Chest­nut Coun­cil’s web­site www.nzcc.org.nz.

Left to right Rhys Jones, Con Huang, Huan Xie and David Klinac. Rhys is a WINTEC tu­tor vis­it­ing with two in­ter­na­tional stu­dents.

From top: Tony Jolly load­ing chest­nuts for pro­cess­ing into chest­nut meal. Jim Ste­wart with chest­nut meal.

Left to right God­frey Larsen and David Klinac with a ma­chine that peels the shell from whole chest­nuts.

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