Robert Carlton-Shields bought Fairview Farm as a going concern in 2011, but it took about six years and approximately R700 000/ha in orchard re-establishment and management costs before he finally reaped a viable harvest from his 10ha of macadamia trees. Given this investment in money and time, he set about improving the cost-efficiency of his operation wherever he could.
According to Carlton-Shields, macadamia production is one of the fastest-expanding agriculture industries in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).
This is confirmed by industry organisation Macadamias South Africa, which states that more than 2 000ha of macadamia orchards were established in the province in 2019 alone.
Carlton-Shields currently has 26 500 14-year- old trees, mostly of the Beaumont variety.
Due to high input costs, he cannot afford any inefficiency in the harvesting process. In addition, the farm is situated in the Oribi Gorge area, where erratic local climatic conditions cause different parts of the orchards to flower and produce nuts at different times during the harvesting season, which runs from April to November. This means that each tree has to be visited three to four times in a season by pickers.
“Our 40 or so seasonal pickers use their pick sticks to knock ripe nuts from trees, which are about 6m tall,” he says. The pickers then collect the fallen nuts into 20kg bags in the 9m-wide rows between the trees. The average annual harvest is about 4,5t/ha of nut-in-shell.
“From these, we currently average 73% snack-grade kernels, which are the most favourably priced. The remaining 27% comprise a mix of commercial-grade and dark-nut grade, which are less favourably priced.”
Until 2014, Fairview Farm used only a static, electric-powered, four-lane dehusker to remove the 3mm- to 5mm-thick, bark-like husk that encloses and protects each macadamia nut. Off-farm processors, who crack macadamia shells to extract and add value to the edible kernel within, do not accept nuts with the husk still attached to the nuts.
The dehusker was housed at the farm’s centrally-located nut-sorting and drying facility. This required a tractor-and-flatbed trailer combination to drive between the facility and the orchard. When the tractor arrived, the picking teams had to stop harvesting to help load the 20kg-bags of husked nuts onto the trailer. The tractor would then haul the laden trailer to the dehusker, where the bags were emptied by hand into the machine’s front-end hopper.
“One of our best pickers can harvest 1,4t in a single day,” says Carlton-Shields. “Our workers’ daily average is around 500kg each, which means that they collectively harvest 20t to 23t a day. This equates to 300 to 500 bags of dehusked nuts weighing 20kg every day.
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