From the ground up

Haidee VandenbergheCountryman

He is technically retired from the farming game, but on any given day you can find Dardanup's Bill Nuske aboard his motorbike or ride-on lawnmower, perusing the neat rows of macadamias that traverse their property.

Together, Bill and his wife Del run Taralea Farm, a 20 hectare parcel of land that started out as a hobby farm with a few sheep but now turns out about 1.5 tonnes of macadamia nuts a year.

It all started with just one tree, planted as a bit of an ornamental specimen in the couple's backyard.

But these days, there's less room for the couple's 80 Dohne sheep after that one tree became 300.

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You could say Del and Bill have gone nuts for macadamias - it's certainly a pun they've heard before.

Bill said he thought the trees would be less work than the sheep, but conceded the jury was still out on whether that was indeed the case.

"I'd had a heart bypass and I thought I'd go for an easier lifestyle, but I don't know if it's easier," he said. "I didn't realise it was so intense. You start off with all these fads and then you find out later just how much work is involved."

The couple's first crack at growing the nut turned out to be a bit of a disaster, after grasshoppers ate most of the 300 newly planted trees.

Undeterred, they replanted and nearly a decade after that first attempt, their trees are in production, with plans for another 150 trees in the pipeline.

Eventually the Nuskes hope to produce four to five tonnes of the Australian nut and the extra trees should give the couple the economies of scale necessary to justify the equipment needed to harvest and process macadamias.

It's no wonder macadamias retail for a pretty penny - they're a tough nut to crack and require a host of equipment to do the job.

The tree flowers in September and by March the first nuts begin to drop to the ground.

Once upon a time Del and Bill would rake up the nuts by hand, but a custom harvester designed by Bill has made the job a little easier.

Nevertheless, harvesting and processing the nuts is still labour intensive.

"Once you pick them up off of the ground you have to dehusk them with a machine straight away," Bill said. "You have to get rid of the green husk - that holds a lot of moisture.

"Then you've got to put them into a silo with air to dry them out as quick as you can. That's for about a month until you get them down to between 10 and 30 per cent moisture."

And how do you tell when the nuts are ready to crack? It's simply a case of shake, rattle and then crack.

After being cracked by a specialised machine, the nuts are further dried before being offered for sale at Del and Bill's stall at the Boyanup Farmers Market.

Some of the nuts are value-added, with Del packaging up flavours like onion and garlic and cinnamon and sugar macadamias.

Demand isn't an issue - this year the couple sold every nut they grew, even having to buy in more from other growers to stock their stall.

Despite the fact the demand is there and the tree is well suited to WA's sandy soils, there are only about 20,000 macadamia trees in WA, spread among a handful of growers.

Related to the Banksia family, the trees have readily adapted to the sandy soils on Del and Bill's block.

"They love sand," Bill said. "That sand out there wouldn't even grow grass, it was that useless. They've done well, although I fertilise and water them a lot."

But Bill and Dell, who started married life working on the home farm at Darkan, after which they moved to Broomehill to work on a large cropping and sheep property, concede the tree change has been a major learning curve.

"It's probably not easier than sheep, but it's different and I like doing it," Bill said.

As he said - you never lose the love of wide, open spaces and the knack of growing things that is part and parcel of being a farmer.

"I've got to have room and if there was more land here I'd probably do a few more trees but I'm happy with what we've got," he said.

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