Valda and Otto's orchard is truly a labour of love and a story of perseverance, fortitude and unrelenting hard work.
They have 80 hectares in total on a plateau above the Kawerau river. Fifteen of these are developed with over 1300 nut trees in the ground and more to be planted. Fourteen of these hectares are in walnuts with another hectare in almonds and a small amount of chestnuts, hazelnuts, quinces and French plums.
Valda also grows feijoas, Black Krim heritage tomatoes, garlic and corn. These vegetable crops allow her to get to the market earlier in the season thereby creating some much needed cash flow.
Every walnut tree has been grafted by Valda and Otto. They are picky trees to propagate as they require a consistent heat of 24.5 degrees Celsius for 30 days. They grow 6 main varieties and have been educating the public about the differences between them to the point where Dunedin customers now really know their cultivars. Otto originally hails from Switzerland where the Swiss really know their nuts and are prepared to pay top $ for the best quality. The trees grow very slowly and some cultivars take up to 17 years to bear a sizeable crop.
This intrepid couple decided upon growing nuts for a number of reasons and after a fair bit of due diligence on lots of other crops. Nutrition is extremely important to Valda – she worked for many years at Otago University teaching food and nutrition.
They were also looking for a high value crop which they could add value to. Walnuts ticked all these boxes. The Cromwell region is ideal for nut growing plus they had ready access to irrigation water from the Kawerau river.
NZ Nuts is certified organic under the ORGANICFARMNZ scheme. Otago Organics is the local organisation that administers the national scheme. This certification scheme takes three years for growers to go through a conversion process to gain organic certification. It is a rigorous process whereby applicants complete documentation checklists which are then used as reference documents when peers visit annually. These verified checklists go off to the certification manager with a local auditor checking them against what is happening at the property every year. After the three years of the conversion process the soil gets tested and, if it meets BioGrow standards, organic certification is awarded.
Valda works hard on building up the soil and creating lots of beneficial microorganisms. She brews up a variety of teas from kelp, nettles and comfrey. On the day the OFM visited Valda was excited to see lots of mushrooms sprouting in the orchard – an indicator of the activity happening under the ground.
Otto has an engineering background and he has bought this expertise to both the harvesting and shelling of the nuts. Otto’s harvesting machine puts out “wings” that look like an inverted umbrella under a walnut tree and then vibrates the tree to release the nuts. His other incredibly innovative and useful invention is the walnut sheller. Otto travelled to France and saw machines that shelled nuts there but was staggered to see they could only manage 9kg an hour. His invention can do 300 kgs an hour and produce at least 50% of unblemished walnut halves. This invention really gives Valda and Otto a competitive edge. For this reason and the fact that they shell organic nuts they are not prepared to lease out the machinery.
In their registered kitchen Valda also makes walnut butter, walnut oil, walnut meal and flour and, her latest taste explosion, pickled walnuts. Nothing at all is wasted. Into the future the wood from the tree will be a very valuable commodity.
They have experienced lethal frost, plagues of rabbits and a devastating fire in 1992 that wiped out their entire research orchard of over 250 trees and machinery shed. This is not an easy way to make a living but the attraction was obvious on the day we visited. Beautifully laid out, their nut plantation was park-like, peaceful and staggeringly beautiful.