Episode 17: A Hard Nut To Crack
On the next episode, screening 25th July 2015 at 7pm on TV ONE:
“Hard Nut to Crack”
When pioneering Blenheim orchardists Graham Farnell and Gill Smith went looking for a crop to grow, they weren’t interested in planting grapes. Instead of joining the wine growing boom, they wanted to grow something more challenging – and opted instead for almonds.
Surrounding their 11 hectare Spring Creek orchard these days are hundreds of hectares of vines, but Graham Farnell has no regrets about being the sole commercial almond orchard in the middle of Marlborough wine country. “Putting aside all the hard work involved in harvesting and processing, you put them in the ground and they just keep producing, so money does grow on trees,” he says.
Almonds are grown throughout the Mediterranean and are a big crop in California and parts of Australia, but as far as Graham and Gill know they are the only ones to try to grow them on any scale in New Zealand.
They started from scratch in 1988, with no local industry to support them. Through hard work, ingenuity and lots of research, they have developed their 2000 tree orchard and learnt how to manage it. But it has been tough.
“We’re growing a marginal crop,” says Graham. “There was no text book; it was a matter of facing that fact and doing what you can to handle it.”
The couple started searching around their local area and took cuttings from trees and propagated them on the home block. Gill says they initially planted 500 trees and assessed them to see if they could produce a viable crop.
In the early days harvesting the crop was a backbreaking chore. Gill says they used hit the branches of the tree with a rubber hammer to shake the nuts loose. When their crop increased Graham put his engineering know how to work and came up with a mechanical harvester, cobbled together from old agricultural machinery he had collected.
Despite growing up on a farm, Graham had never been interested in farming. He ended up training as a mechanic and later worked as an engineer in the mussel industry. His ability to design and built machinery to help with both the harvesting and processing of the almonds, has saved them time and money - both precious commodities in a growing business.
From late July right through to early September, as the fruit is forming on the tree, the couple pull out all stops to protect their vulnerable crop from frost and Graham’s engineering ability has also helped with the almond crop’s biggest threat – frost.
Inspired by the helicopters that are still used in the grape industry to hover over vineyards, circulating the warmer air and preventing the frost from settling, Graham has modified an agricultural hedge trimmer, put some blades on it, and turned it into a ground based helicopter.
These days when the frost alarm goes the two of them start up the tractor and move up and down their trees with the blades whirring above their heads.
Now that the crop is established and most of the harvest and processing mechanised, Gill and Graham reckon they can start relaxing. But there are no plans for retirement, Graham’s got plenty more engineering projects up his sleeve and Gill, who used to be heavily involved in multi-sport has found a new interest in canine agility with her dog Peppy.
For more about this story visit:
Marlborough Farmer’s Market
Stuff Article from 2009
BBC news story
Te Rurehe Paki
Post Production Manager