Indigenous to Australia, South Africa’s first introduction to the macadamia nut was in the 1960s. In the last few years, however, the country’s industry has grown immensely and is considered one of the biggest in the world.
According to Macadamia South Africa (Samac), the country’s macadamia industry has grown twenty times bigger in the last two decades. In 1991, South Africa was harvesting 1 211 tonnes of nuts in shell (NIS). By 2019, 59 050 tonnes were harvested.
Mark Penter, a researcher at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), confirms that the country’s macadamia industry rivals even that of Australia, which is the biggest macadamia producer in the world.
“There’s been talk in the last five years of South Africa having overtaken Australia as the biggest producer. I think that changes a little bit from year to year. We have our on and off years. They have their on and off years. So on average, we are probably producing roughly in the region of what they’re producing, but certainly we’re planting more trees.”
Penter has spent more than two decades working with macadamia nuts, and currently leads the ARC’s macadamia evaluation programme, where he evaluates new cultivars for the industry.
The macadamia market
Samac, South Africa’s primary macadamia organisation, reports that the industry has grown in value from R32 million in 1996 to R4.8 billion rand in 2021. In 2020, macadamia farmers planted an additional 5 351 hectares of macadamia trees, with KwaZulu-Natal planting the most new trees.
The macadamia industry exports about 98% of its production. The NIS exports go primarily to China and East Asia, and the majority of the kernel export market is made up of North America and Europe.
Penter says that this season’s harvest is predicted to produce 57 000 tonnes of NIS. He explains that the global market is estimated at 350 000 tonnes, confirming that South Africa plays an important role in the global market.
“The biggest new role player in the worldwide macadamia industry is probably China. They are certainly planting a lot more trees than the rest of the producing countries, but their plantings tend to be in suboptimal areas. So possibly, although they’ve got the most trees in the ground, it’ll be a little while before they’re the biggest mac producer, but we can’t rule them out of the global market.”
Of the nearly 60 000 tonnes of macadamia nuts we produce, only about half of that is processed in the country, Penter adds.
“Its nuts are dried and cracked, and the kernel extracted locally for export. We exported, last year, 57% of our crop as kernel and 43% of our export as NIS, so that means the matter is dried, but it’s not taken out of the shell.”
An expensive crop to plant
Penter explains that planting macadamia trees is a long-term commitment. The crop is an expensive investment and can take many years to start producing profits.
“For the precocious cultivars, you’re looking at about two to three years for the first nuts to be on the tree. And at that point, it’s a really small crop, a handful of nuts. So, you’re not looking at being economically viable.”
The crops will very likely only increase around year six or seven, he says, but that depends on the cultivar and on your farming experience.
“If you’re an established grower growing another crop, and you’ve already got all your infrastructure like tractors, buildings, etc, and you’re just switching to macadamias, you’re probably looking at a macadamia orchard breaking even by year six to seven. If you are a new farmer who just bought a piece of land, starting from scratch with no infrastructure in place, and you still have to put in all the irrigation, buy the equipment and build a shed, you’re probably looking at about 11 years to break even.”
To plant a macadamia crop can cost around R60 000 per hectare, Penter says. The primary inputs that make this crop so expensive is the cost of labour and fertiliser.
“Picking up the crop requires a lot of hands-on the ground. There is a move to mechanisation or mechanised harvesting, but that’s relatively early days for the industry. At the moment, there’s a lot of labour involved and that’s probably the biggest cost. After that, your fertilisers and things like irrigation and then farm equipment comes into the equation.”
The potential income per hectare, once the orchard starts producing, is around R178 000, says Penter. But that amount is highly variable.
“I think there’s talk of some areas where they achieve around R300 000 per hectare. But that’s very localised. It’s limited to areas that are optimal for the crop, but that’s the sort of income you’re looking at.”
He emphasises that because farming with macadamias is so expensive, farmers should look at having a second crop that generates cash flow. In some instances, farmers have grown crops between their macadamia rows or switched to plantation type crops like papaya and bananas, Penter says.
“You will often see the macadamias being established in established plantations, and so you’ll see a banana field with macadamias planted between the bananas until they’re big enough to be producing, at which point the bananas are taken out. That’s not ideal, but that’s a reality. You need cash flow when you’re farming.”
The ideal macadamia climate
For your macadamia trees to flourish, the ideal climate is subtropical, where it gets hot but not humid. Penter explains that there are few areas in the country where macadamia nuts will not grow, and that there are growers who plant year-round. He says that the crop does not do well in areas with frost.
“[Macadamias are] definitely not a deciduous species. If you have frost, don’t plant them. There are farmers in areas that receive occasional frost, like every third or fourth year, that take a chance. Especially if the frost events are relatively mild, and only a day or two. And, if you can protect young trees in the first three or four years against frost, you can possibly get away with that.”
He says that young trees are particularly sensitive to frost but with older trees, a mild frost will probably result in the loss of the tips of the branches. “In young trees, you will use the entire tree, so stay away from macadamias if you’re in an area [with plenty] of frost.”
While the crop is one that needs hot weather, too hot weather can also be dampening. Penter explains that macadamia trees tend to stop photosynthesising once the temperature reaches 33°C, but will be prevented from succumbing to the heat with enough water.
“If you’ve got ample water in hot areas, you’re not going to lose your trees but you’re certainly not going to have a productive tree. Having said that, most of our areas do have days over 33°C, both the subtropical and tropical areas, and with the years getting warmer, that’s more and more becoming the case.”
In areas where the temperatures get really high, macadamias may still flourish, as long as those temperatures are not occurring a majority of the time.
“[If you get] temperatures above 33 and in some of the planted areas, you get up to 35 to 40° at certain times of the year – as long as it’s not the dominant temperature, you are okay. The ideal temperature for the macadamia is probably between 16 and 30°.”
Soil, water and wind
Penter says that the recommended amount of water for macadamia crops is a minimum of 800 to 1000ml if you are planting dry land. He explains that planting macadamia crops on dry land requires that the rainfall take place around flowering, which is generally around August.
“Your primary water need is between August and late January, early February. That’s the period from flowering to oil accumulation. If you don’t have between 800 and 1000ml, you obviously need supplementary irrigation and most macadamia farms are irrigated.”
Wind, he says, is another element that factors in the health of macadamia trees. “Macadamias have very brittle wood and some of the cultivars are extremely prone to wind damage. This particularly applies to the coastal areas where there’s regular wind. You are going to need to plant windbreaks in windy areas. That’s critical.”
When it comes to soil, Penter explains that the crop is tolerant of a wind range of soil types. Macadamias can be planted in fairly sandy soils through to heavy clay soils.
“In terms of soil, your biggest negative for macadamias is wet fruits. They’re highly susceptible to root rot. So, you’re going to want to avoid overly wet soils, which means you need to ensure that your soils are well-drained, and if they have compaction layers, they need to be ripped and cross ripped before planting to at least the depth of a metre.”
In shallow soils where there the depth does not reach one metre, Penter says the crops can be planted on ridges.
Critical to the future success of a macadamia orchard is getting the soil properly analysed. “Get a soil consultant in before you plant. If this is not a lifestyle planting or a small-scale planting or some sort of retirement planting, if you’re going to do this properly and commercially, get soil samples before you plant.
“Get a soil analysis or profile done and get a soil mineral analysis. A lot of areas you’re going to need a pre-plant fertilisation to adjust the soil chemistry [so it’s] right for macadamias. That’s critical.”
Penter says the most common cultivar in South Africa is the Beaumont cultivar. The plant has about six species but only two are edible. Those two, says Penter, is Macadamia integrifolia and Macadamia tetraphylla.
“Tetraphyllas are not commercially planted. Their kernel sugar content is too high for good roasting of the kernel, so we tend to plant the macadamia integrifolia and hybrids of integrifolia and tetraphylla.”
Beaumont, explains Penter, is a hybrid cultivars. He says that its tetraphylla background makes it relatively precocious, meaning it flowers or fruits earlier than usual, and it will start producing nuts at year two or three.
“However, the biggest negative to the Beaumont cultivar, because of its tetraphylla background, is that it doesn’t drop its nuts very readily. So, although it’s a widely planted cultivar because it’s precautious and it bears well, there is a slight drawback in that it doesn’t easily drop the nuts. That means there’s quite a bit more work involved in harvesting.”
Penter says that there are other cultivars which also enjoy popularity in the country, including the 816 cultivar. It is an older cultivar, and is used for the quality of its produce.
“The 816 cultivar is an integrifolia cultivar. It’s popular not because of its yields – which are relatively low compared to the other cultivars – but it produces large whole kernels, and very clean, very pale kernels. So its quality is the main driver for its popularity.”
Once you have decided which cultivar you are going to plant you need to ensure that you purchase it from an accredited nursery years before you start planting, Penter advises.
“It’s critical, three to four years before you’re intending to plant, to make contact with the nursery you’re going to use. There is a fairly long waiting period for trees at the moment. This is a rapidly growing industry. The nurseries don’t have stock standing by waiting for buyers. Everything in the nursery is already committed to orders so you need to get an order in with an established nursery, or an approved nursery, at least two to three years before you intend on planting.”
Tips and advice
Penter has the following advice for farmers aspiring to farm with macadamia nuts:
- If you’re not an established farmer growing something else that is providing cash flow, you need to get your finances in place. If you’re going to be commercial and you’re going in for the long term, there are non-negotiables like land preparation, fertilisation, buying good quality trees, and getting your spraying equipment bought.
- Talk to Samac. At the moment, the industry works off a statutory levy, so as an incoming grower, just understand you’re going to be contributing to a statutory levy that goes towards financing research but also financing the Samac body. But make contact, talk to them about what they do for the growers.
- Start early. Up to three or four years before you plan to plant, get a list of nurseries. One of the services Samac provides is the list of accredited nurseries. So, through Samac, get that nursery list and make contact with the nurseries in the area where you are planning to plant. Get your pre-order in early and then yeah start the process of the specialised on-farm equipment that you’re going to need. You’re going to need dehusking facilities and you’re going to need drying facilities.
- Find out everything you can about the crop. There are quite a lot of macadamia consultants out there. The ARC also produces a book of about 200 odd pages on the cultivation of macadamia which they sell to the public.
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