Sheep farm­ers get crack­ing with hazel­nuts

The Orchardist - - Profile - Story and pho­tos by Karen Tre­bil­cock

When a child­hood in­jury caught up with him, Steve Li­etze de­cided it was time to sell their third-gen­er­a­tion South­land sheep farm.

The 215ha, be­tween Gore and Ta­panui, had more than 2000 breed­ing ewes and was not do­ing his bad back any good so he and his wife Robyn sold and bought five years ago what they thought was an 8ha life­style block near Mosgiel.

“I was heav­ily preg­nant with our third child and we des­per­ately needed some­where to live,” Robyn said.

They knew there was a 12-year-old hazel­nut or­chard on the prop­erty but they hadn’t looked at the trees be­fore buying. At the worst, Robyn thought, they could be chopped up and sold as fire­wood.

“And then when we came here I saw they were lit­tle things and weren’t even go­ing to be any good for fire­wood,” she said.

Steve’s only ex­pe­ri­ence with hazel­nuts was from scrog­gin mixes when he went tramp­ing.

“The hazel­nuts were al­ways the nuts you threw out be­cause they were taste­less but then I started try­ing some of the ones here that were still on the tree and they were so dif­fer­ent.”

In the shed was a back­pack har­vester so he got it work­ing but soon was frus­trated as it vac­u­umed up only one nut at a time off the ground and also ev­ery piece of leaf and dirt it could find.

“There were about 4000 trees in 10 blocks and it took me about a month to do one block.”

The cou­ple also quickly re­alised that sell­ing raw nuts to a whole­saler would not make them any money. So they made a wish list and went out and found ev­ery­thing on it.They im­ported a three-wheeled, self-pro­pelled har­vester from Italy and from China filled a con­tainer with a sheller, sep­a­ra­tor, ro­tary screen, a roaster, screw press for oil pro­duc­tion, a but­ter ma­chine, flour mill, meal maker and a choco­late coater.

“It was about the same cost to ship a con­tainer from China than to bring out just one piece of equipment.”

They built a new shed on the prop­erty to hold ev­ery­thing and also put in it a com­mer­cial kitchen, do­ing all of the work them­selves.

And from Novem­ber last year they started sell­ing Amazel­nuts at the Dunedin Rail­way Sta­tion’s Otago Farm­ers Mar­ket ev­ery Satur­day.

So far they have only sold raw and dry roasted nuts but Robyn is ea­ger to try new things, es­pe­cially a Nutella-type recipe she has and also hazel­nut but­ters. And then there is the choco­late coater.

With a graphic de­sign, mar­ket­ing and ad­ver­tis­ing back­ground, she worked on the brand­ing of their prod­uct.

“We re­alised how amaz­ing the nuts tasted so it went from there,” she said. “We called them Amazel­nuts.”

She said the se­cret to the taste was the fresh­ness. The nuts are dried on large wire racks which can be pulled out of the shed by a trac­tor when the days are warm and windy. Af­ter about three months of dry­ing they are hand sorted to separate va­ri­eties and to re­move any leaves and twigs. They are then screened for size.

“We’ve got about six dif­fer­ent ma­chines and ten dif­fer­ent screens and there’s a mil­lime­tre be­tween each size, ex­cept for the big nuts from the pol­li­na­tor trees,” Steve said.

Siz­ing the nut cor­rectly is cru­cial for the next stage – when they are taken out of their shell.

“If you get it wrong the rollers in the ma­chine can chew up 40% of your nuts. We’ve got it down to los­ing only about 2%.”

A sep­a­ra­tor is the next piece of equipment and then it’s hand sort­ing again to take out any pieces of shell that have got through. Lastly the nuts are roasted be­fore they come back onto the table for a fi­nal look over and bag­ging.

“We used to roast ev­ery two weeks but now we’re do­ing it ev­ery week so the nuts are as fresh as they can be at the mar­ket,” Robyn said.

“We don’t put in any oils or salt or sugar be­cause the nuts don’t need it and cus­tomers at the mar­ket don’t want it. The peo­ple who are there buying are buying be­cause they want a nat­u­ral food.”

They sell nuts ev­ery Satur­day at the mar­ket, about 10% raw and the rest roasted, with Steve tak­ing the early shift. Robyn and their three kids, Flynn (9), Milly (6) and Harry (5) ar­rive about 9am and they work to­gether un­til 1pm.

“I’m in re­tail three days a week in Mosgiel so the talk­ing to peo­ple and sell­ing is no prob­lem for me but peo­ple at the mar­ket like to talk to Steve about the trees the nuts come from,” she said. “He gets all the curly ques­tions.”

She said all of the ven­dors at the mar­ket knew each other and it was a fam­ily at­mos­phere.

“The kids love it. Satur­day is their favourite day of the week.”

While Robyn works sort­ing nuts two days a week, plus Satur­day morn­ings at the mar­ket, Steve is work­ing in the busi­ness full time – ei­ther prun­ing trees, har­vest­ing the nuts off the ground or sort­ing and shelling.

He strug­gled at the start try­ing to get ad­vice about the trees and pro­cess­ing the nuts but gave up and has fig­ured it out mostly him­self.

“We’re very dif­fer­ent to Can­ter­bury down here. All the ad­vice was for Can­ter­bury nut grow­ers but when they are putting their har­vesters away for the sea­son we’re just get­ting ours out.”

“We don’t put in any oils or salt or sugar be­cause the nuts don’t need it and cus­tomers at the mar­ket don’t want it. The peo­ple who are there buying are buying be­cause they want a nat­u­ral food.”

He usu­ally waits un­til An­zac day and aims to do two sweeps.

“The new har­vester is a wee bit tem­per­a­men­tal but most of the time it’s pretty good,” Steve said.

“You don’t want to leave too much be­hind be­cause you’ll pick it up the next year and then have to sort it out from this year’s crop.

“And you want to get most of the nuts be­fore leaf fall be­cause then you are suck­ing up all of the wet leaves as well.” He’s pulled out the na­tive tree shel­ter belts in the mid­dle of the prop­erty which were hold­ing wa­ter in the soils and re­planted the ar­eas in more hazel­nuts.

“The trees here need the wind so the nuts fall from the tree. They don’t like too much wind but we don’t get the nor’west­ers here like they do in Can­ter­bury so we re­ally don’t need shel­ter belts.

The ir­ri­ga­tion which had been set up amongst the trees by the pre­vi­ous own­ers also rarely gets used.

“We are usu­ally try­ing to keep the ground dry, es­pe­cially at har­vest, not the other way round.”

About 80% of the or­chard is planted in White­heart hazel­nuts with the rest Alexan­der, Merveille de Boll­willer, Langs­ing and Butler for pol­li­na­tion. Hazel­nuts are wind pol­li­nated in early spring from the catkins of an­other va­ri­ety.

With three soil types – rang­ing from peat to hard clay – on the prop­erty, Steve has put his sheep farm­ing skills to good use build­ing drains.

“When you are a farmer you’re also a builder and an en­gi­neer and a whole lot of other things. In the end it’s still na­ture. I’m just farm­ing hazel­nuts in­stead of sheep.”

There are small blocks of land in hazel­nuts through­out the greater Dunedin area, all mostly planted at about the same time A cou­ple of years ago Steve and Robyn bought an­other one just down the road, bring­ing the num­ber of trees they own to 10,000.

“Hazel­nuts are a lot of work and I don’t think peo­ple re­alised this when they planted the trees,” Robyn said.

“Things can look good on paper,” Steve said “but they don’t al­ways work out that way.”

They’ve just started em­ploy­ing some­one on a tem­po­rary ba­sis and are think­ing about mak­ing the po­si­tion per­ma­nent so they can ex­pand the busi­ness.

Al­though sell­ing roasted nuts through the farmer’s mar­ket is suc­cess­ful, they both want to keep grow­ing.

“It’s keep­ing us re­ally busy though, al­most too busy,” Robyn said. “There are al­ways dead­lines with the farm­ers mar­ket each week to be ready for.”

But Steve is happy.

“The best thing for me has been get­ting out of sheep farm­ing and do­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent. Life is to be en­joyed. It’s too short not to en­joy it.”

“The best thing for me has been get­ting out of sheep farm­ing and do­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent. Life is to be en­joyed. It’s too short not to en­joy it.”

From left: Robyn and Steve’s chil­dren play­ing in the hazel­nut or­chard.

Robyn and Steve Li­etze with their three chil­dren ( from left) Milly (6), Flynn (9) and Harry (5).

Clock­wise from top left: Hazel­nuts dry­ing on racks in the or­chard’s shed. Hazel­nuts dried and ready for shelling. One of the screens that size the hazel­nuts. The yet-to-be-used choco­late coater in the or­chard’s com­mer­cial kitchen.

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