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MACADAMIAS : Popular Nut Is Becoming a Profitable Alternative Crop for California Growers

May 12, 1988|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

RAINBOW, Calif. — The sweet, floral fragrance of a Hawaiian orchard in bloom envelopes a hillside stand of trees here in the northern reaches of San Diego County.

The pleasing, but seemingly misplaced, scent is the springtime signature of a most identifiable island commodity--macadamia nuts.

The countless pink blossoms responsible for the area's tropical feel portend a fine California season for the prized ivory-color nuts. In an area known more for its expansive ranches and avocado groves, macadamias are becoming a popular--and profitable--alternative crop.

Growers' success with this tropical tree, now well beyond the experimental stage, heralds the addition of yet another lucrative species to California agriculture. And the demand for macadamias, generated by their unique flavor and high-priced image, is unyielding.

Further fueling interest in the nut is the macadamia's resistance to the cinnamon fungus currently destroying the root system of older avocado trees, an area fixture. When replacement plantings are sought, macadamias are increasingly the choice.

This year's anticipated harvest, a modest 100,000 pounds, is only a beginning, according to industry estimates. By 1993, the total is expected to increase tenfold as young trees begin bearing nuts.

Although these figures pale in comparison to Hawaii's multimillion-pound yield, the viability of Mainland macadamias are most welcome to farmers, nut lovers and processors alike. At a minimum, local availability may eventually mean that the price of these precious nuts, whose shelled meat sells for $12 per pound, may someday level off.

Kitty Scholes laughed upon recalling the less-than-scientific way that she and her husband selected macadamias as the tree to plant over 4 acres of ranchland here.

The almost hasty decision was made more than 20 years ago under prompting from a well-traveled relative who had encountered the macadamia upon visits to Hawaii. The recommendation met with blank stares.

But then Scholes took a quick trip to the grocery store in an attempt to locate the unusual sounding item which, at the time, was virtually unknown outside of the islands.

"I went down to the market, saw the prices and said, 'Oh, boy, I'm going to get rich and retire early.'

"Well, here we are 20 years later and I'm just as poor as when we started," she said, with more than a touch of exaggeration.

A quick review of macadamia economics demonstrates just why the nuts have found favor. An acre holds about 125 adult trees, each of which yields 50 to 70 pounds of nuts. Thanks to a strong demand, growers can expect about $1.25 per pound for the California variety. At this rate of return, an average orchard can, conservatively, gross upwards of $7,000 to $8,000 an acre per year--an impressive total even though harvest, other labor-related costs and initial investments must be deducted.

Ducking under a blossom-laden bough, Scholes looked back and said the choice of macadamias was equal parts courage and ignorance.

"It was kinda dumb, I guess, operating on blind faith," she said.

When pressed, however, she will admit to enjoying almost everything about the trees, their springtime beauty and, of course, the nuts, which are enclosed in seemingly impenetrable shells.

Macadamias are a hard nut to crack. They require a special tool to split the rock-like shell or, more likely, one of the various home-spun methods that ultimately employ a hammer. A traditional nutcracker will not do.

Even so, all the effort is considered worthwhile because the crunchy texture offers a delicate, mocha-flavored meat. Most consumers are familiar with the numerous roasted, salted or chocolate-covered forms available from Hawaii. But the nut, in its simplest raw, dried state, is an island treasure.

Much of macadamia's appeal, in agricultural terms, is its low maintanence.

"They're a great deal for the gentleman farmer," said Alva V. Snider, a grower who has worked with macadamias for 20 years. "They don't require (pesticide) spraying and you don't need to cultivate them. Other (tree) crops are a lot more work."

Unlike almonds and walnuts, which need to be shaken from the tree by mechanical harvesters, the macadamia simply falls to the ground when ripe. The most difficult chores involve collecting the nuts from the orchard floor and seasonal pruning.

This state's macadamia pioneers, like Scholes and Snider, realized in 1971 that they would need a means of marketing their crop once the trees reached fruition. Shortly thereafter, the Gold Crown Macadamia Assn. was formed in nearby Fallbrook.

More than 140 growers are members today representing a combined production area of 1,000 acres, mostly in San Diego County, but some as north as Santa Barbara.

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