A cracking good idea pays off for Australian pecan producers 

Published: September 2019 I By: Beverley Hadgraft, Photography: Robert Dunn

Fifty years ago, Australians had hardly heard of pecans, a North American staple. Now a farm near Moree is the biggest producer in the Southern Hemisphere.

Sorters remove leftover debris from freshly picked pecans at the orchards at Trawalla, 35km east of Moree. Photography by Robert Dunn. 
There are some crops that sound almost too good to be true. Pecans may be one of them. The trees have an incredibly long life – commercial orchards set up in the 1800s in America are still going strong.

The pecans themselves are easy to pick, with trees requiring a good mechanical shake rather than a busload of backpackers. The robust nuts have a long shelf life of at least a year and fetch a good price, currently around $5-$6/kg in their shells.

Away from their natural home in the United States, the trees are barely even affected by pests. “Our main pest was the green vegetable bug which bites the nut,” says Dave Reibel, farm manager of Trawalla, which grows more than 2,000 tonnes of pecans a year in North West NSW. 
 

Trawalla farm manager Dave Reibel with pecans that will be transported to the processing plant in Toowoomba for retail packaging.

“In the 1990s, about 15% of the crop was affected, but with the help of the CSIRO we brought in a predator wasp which predates on the bug but doesn’t affect any native insects. This year I’d expect less than 0.2-0.5% of the crop to be affected.”

Being pesticide-free provides a good competitive advantage for Australian pecans, although Trawalla’s orchard generally has a good environmental profile, says Dave. The trees remove about 40,000 tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere each year and the nuts’ oily shells are sold to cogeneration plants where they’re burned to provide energy.
 

Mature pecan nuts growing on a tree. Pecan trees are best grown in regions with hot, humid summers. 

The ongoing success of Trawala would have given its late founder Deane Stahmann immense pleasure, not least because when he announced his intention to grow the first pecans at the orchard in 1968, the local cockies referred to him as “that mad American”, and started taking bets on when he’d go broke.

Certainly, says, Dave, the investment was a massive undertaking. When Deane bought the property, about 35km east of Moree, and established Stahmann Farms on the site, he literally had to start from scratch, spending the first three years levelling the ground and planting trees. It would be another seven years before they started producing nuts.

However, Deane had been involved in his family’s pioneering pecan business, established in New Mexico in the United States in the 1930s, so he had strong experience. Also, he specifically wanted an orchard in the Southern Hemisphere to ensure year-round pecan production, and knew exactly the four boxes that needed ticking to guarantee success. 

“These were: heat through summer, chill hours in winter, deep, well-drained alluvial soil and a regular water supply,” says Dave. “Trawalla was perfect, especially as Copeton Dam at Inverell was just being built and Deane secured one of the first issued licences, which gave us regular water.

“He imported genetic material from the US and set up his own nursery, growing predominantly the same two pecan varieties that are still produced here: Wichita and Western Schley.”
 
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The only slight hiccup was that his plan to fly the nuts back to meet American demand proved uneconomical so, instead, a processing plant was built in Toowoomba in Queensland. Today the pecans, along with macadamias, are still cracked and marketed there and sold all over the world, as well as at home. 

Between the Trawalla property and the processing plant, which takes in other growers’ nuts, Deane Stahmann Farms produces, processes or markets an estimated 90% of Australian pecan output. 
 

Containers to convey the harvested pecans are lined up in the orchards at Trawalla. 

“Before Deane, Australians didn’t really eat pecans and we still have a very low consumption rate compared to North America,” says Dave. “About half the nuts stay in Australia and we sell to all the major supermarkets, including Coles, Woolworths and Aldi, and to food manufacturers who add them to products such as ice cream.”

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Customers include them in salads, stir fries and bakes, and there’s also a ‘value added’ section in the Toowoomba plant where the nuts are flavoured with vanilla maple or are dry-roasted and salted and sold through Dan Murphy’s or on Australia’s Airnorth airline.

The rest are exported to America, New Zealand, Asia and Europe. Frustratingly an enthusiastic Chinese market has waned due to the current America-China trade dispute. China sees pecans as an American nut, so prices and demand have dropped off slightly as a result, although selling to China directly via an online store seems to help.
 
Natural plant cycles determine harvest  

At present, Trawalla’s 1,000 hectares are planted with 700,000 mature trees and another 50,000 trees aged between one and 20 years. Perhaps the only downside of pecans is that they are biannual which means they have an on-year and an off-year. In an on-year, they’ll produce around 3 tonnes per hectare, and in an off-year it’s 2-2.3 tonnes per hectare.

“After harvesting, when they go dormant, each tree has a certain amount of stored carbohydrates that will determine how big next year’s crop will be,” says Dave. 

“They put a lot of energy into a bigger crop so the next year they don’t have such a large energy store, so put out a smaller crop – which allows them to build that energy reserve up again.

“It’s an up and down cycle so we’re currently trying to learn more about that with carbohydrate testing. We drill into the tree, take out a core sample and get it analysed in the lab. We check the amount of stored energy the tree has throughout the year and we’re trying to see if we can make it higher, with timed irrigation and fertiliser applications. It’s a naturally occurring process but we’re trying to influence where we can, so we have more stable production.”


Pecan trees in their infancy. 

Investors plan to help double pecan production profits 
 
Trawalla is not just the largest pecan grower in Australia, it’s also the biggest in the Southern Hemisphere, and since a majority stake was bought by Canada’s Public Sector Pension Investment Board (PSP Investments) in 2017, there are plans to double production over the next five years.

While Dave’s disappointed that a similar vision in investing in agriculture isn’t apparent amongst Australian pension funds, he’s delighted by the long-term plans being put in place – which are essential, bearing in mind that the farm is planting pecan trees now for owners who will still be harvesting them in 100 years time.

“The orchards produce a good regular income source for PSP to pay their pensions and they’re investing a lot of money, upgrading assets. We’ve bought more land and we’re growing more trees.”

Dave’s happy, also, to see Trawalla’s former owner, Matthew Durack still on the board. Deane sold Trawalla to Matthew and another long-term employee Jeff Dodd in 2008. “He wanted his trees and staff looked after and he felt the managers were people he could trust,” Dave explains. 
 

Part of the daily tasks for the workers on the pecan farm include manually picking over the windrows to remove large sticks. 

“He helped them out big time. There aren’t many people in the world like that and we’ve tried to maintain that culture of valuing our people and looking after our trees because they supply us with a future,” Dave says. 

“I’ve been here for about 20 years and that’s because Stahmanns is a good company, they care for their staff and it’s really enjoyable working around trees.”

The pecan trees provide steady work for around 25 staff at Trawalla. They harvest through winter, then prune to regenerate the trees and promote growth. Through summer they’re busy with fertilisation, irrigation, mowing and tree-base spraying to keep weeds under control, particularly around the younger trees, before harvest comes around again.

That harvesting is mainly done mechanically. After the nuts have been shaken to the ground another machine sweeps and blows them into windrows. Stick pickers walk through to remove big sticks before a harvester vacuums up the windrows, sorts out the rubbish and leaves and collects the nuts into a trailer.
 

An Orchard-Rite tree shaker dislodges the nuts. 

They are then put into a shipping container and washed and dried in the cleaning plant before being trucked up to Toowoomba to be cracked and packed.

Probably the biggest headache at the moment is dealing with the 1,000 or so ravenous cockatoos and corellas that descend on the orchards every day looking for a feed. Air gas guns, small aeroplanes and even special pyrotechnics that whizz and bang have had limited success so the latest brainwave has been to plant a 200ha block that hasn’t yet been turned into orchard with sorghum. 

“The birds stripped that back in a couple of months but every tonne of sorghum they eat is a tonne of nuts left in the trees,” Dave says.
 

A harvester picks up the windrows and conveys them into the cart at the rear. 
 
Supporting smaller pecan growers to become profitable 

Stahmann Farms is generous in its support of other farmers entering the pecan growing business. “There are lots of smaller growers with 200-2,000 trees,” says Dave. “We mentor a lot of them and provide genetic material to reduce the likelihood of imported disease or pests. We give lots of free advice and people are always welcome to come here and see how we do things. 

“It’s really satisfying helping other people who don’t have the resources we do, and I love showing this place off. With all the worry with the drought, it’s good to show an industry that’s growing and creating more jobs.” 


The nuts are moved along, ready for packing and shipment.

The pecan industry pioneers 
 
1965: Deane Stahmann, the son of a pioneering pecan grower in the United States, arrived in Australia to search for a Southern Hemisphere site for his family’s business. He planted his first trees in Queensland.


Deane and Helen Stahmann. 

1968: Deane and wife Helen bought the Trawalla property near Moree, and spent the next decade establishing the pecan tree orchard. A plan to fly the pecans directly to America failed to take off.

1982: Stahmann Farms’ cracking plant in Toowoomba began operation.

2006: The Australian arm of Stahmann Farms Enterprises split from its US parent.

2008: Deane sold the orchards to two long-term employees Matthew Durack and Jeff Dodd and it became an Australian incorporated entity.

2013: Deane died and was buried in Toowoomba.

2017: Canada’s PSP Investments bought a majority stake in Stahmann Farms Enterprises. Trawalla continued expanding its operations.
 

Mature trees at the farm in Trawalla. 

Nuts about pecans

  1. They are North America’s only major indigenous nut tree, and don’t grow naturally anywhere else in the world.

  2. The nuts were a staple food for Native Americans during the winter months, and many varieties still bear names of their tribes, including Apache, Navaho and Wichita.

  3. The crop is wind-pollinated so no bees are required.

  4. Pecans are high in unsaturated fats and antioxidants, and are thought to reduce cholesterol levels.

  5. Australian pecans are harvested in the Northern Hemisphere off-season meaning that fresh product can be shipped into major markets in the pre-Christmas season and in time for Chinese New Year.

  6. Australian pecans are free from scab disease, which blights much of the production in the US. Most of the Australian crop is grown without the use of chemical pesticides.

The numbers are in on the pecan industry 

100 pecan growers in Australia.

180,000 trees planted.

3,000 tonnes produced in the shell in Australia each year.

4,900 tonnes predicted production by 2025.

95% of global pecans produced in the US and Mexico.

.08% produced in Australia.

        Sources: NSW Department of Primary Industries, Australian Nut Industry Council 

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