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Although macadamia nut trees have been in Hawai’i since 1879, introduced here from Australia by sugar plantation manager William H. Purvis of Honoka’a in Hāmākua, they remained an edible prized only by a few for decades. After all, sugar cane was Hawai’i’s stellar crop at the turn of the 19th century. The Hawaiian Agricultural Experimental Station made seedlings available to farmers in the early 1910s. Plantations were beginning to see the wisdom of crop diversification, and experimental plantings began in the 1920s, mostly on marginal sugar cane lands. A first harvest took place in 1926, in Honoka’a. In 1938, an isolated 60-acre North Kohala orchard, planted by the agriculturist Kenneth Bond, became the first to focus on a commercial crop. But the timing still wasn’t quite right. In 1948, orchards in Honoka’a offered Hawai’i’s first crops for sale. Planters at last acknowledged that macadamia nuts as a product could do exceptionally well in Hawai’i.
Crunchy, nutrient-rich and sweet, Hawai’i”s macadamia nuts trace their true flourishing as a premium island crop to the 1980s, when the market for regional specialty products began to accelerate. Macadamia nuts have since become an aloha signature crop. Containing 80 percent oil and 4 percent sugar, it’s indeed an irresistible nut. Today, cultivars developed in Hawai’i make up the majority of the trees in orchards throughout the world. Macadamia nut production statewide came to an estimated 49.0 million pounds for the 2011-2012 season, harvested from about 17,000 acres in crop and an estimated 1.2 million macadamia nut trees.
Surface feeders, dependent on healthy, balanced soils rich in organic matter, macadamia nut trees are thriving especially on the slopes of Mauna Loa, in Ka’ū these days. Only careful maintenance routines, regular mowing cycles, adequate water supplies, good mulching and fertilizing, great teamwork and integrated agricultural practices result in good yields and final macadamia nut products. From wet husk to dry crunch, macadamia nuts undergo many steps, which are guided by as many skillful hands.
The harvesting season for macadamia nuts runs from August through January. During Hawai’i’s cooling autumn months, mature macadamia nuts safely protected by sturdy shells and husks drop to the ground, and farmers turn busy with hand-gathering or mechanical harvesting. Under favorable conditions, a ten-year old tree can produce up to 150 pounds of in-husk nuts, but the salt-dusted, chocolate-dipped, or cookie-battered kernels that we love are merely an idea at that point. De-husking is the first step needed. Next, a drying process decreases nut moisture from about 25 percent to 1.5 percent. Equipment that can exert 300 pounds of pressure cracks the shells. The raw kernels that emerge are now ready for grading, roasting, final drying, and processing.
Edmund C. Olson Trust’s Kaʻū Farms Management is a partner with Kaʻu Coffee Mill, which farms more than 500 acres of mac nut orchards,. With harvests topping 1.5 million pounds of nuts annually (wet-in-shell), these locally grown macadamia nuts are destined for the Trust’s affiliate, Hamakua Macadamia Nut Company. Upon arrival to Hamakua Macadamia Nut Company, the nuts are then dried, processed, packaged, and marketed all under one roof.