A Cracker of a Nut

July 2015

A business extracting maximum value from walnuts

A Cracker of a Nut is a specialist walnut processing factory located just outside Christchurch, the region where over 80% of New Zealand’s walnuts are grown.  Jenny and Malcolm Lawrence started growing their own walnuts in 1989 and built the first factory premises for cracking, grading and packing walnuts in 1996 with a 0.5 tonne throughput.  Nineteen years later the plant will take in up to 200 tonnes this year, under a new co-operative grower ownership, including the Lawrences, from April onwards.

Malcolm and Jenny Lawrence bought land in 1987 at West Melton, south-west of Christchurch on the dry Canterbury plains.  After attending meetings of the Tree Crops Association and hearing the progress of walnut variety selection and propagation at Lincoln University, they decided on 520 grafted walnut trees on a 10ha orchard.  The TCA/Lincoln Great Fruit and Nut Search received 756 samples of walnuts from trees all over NZ and after evaluation the top 10 were selected for the production of grafted trees for orchard development.   The Lawrence orchard and its neighbour, originally planted by the Lawrences and sub-divided, are certified organic.

A Cracker of a Nut purchases walnuts in-the-shell from properties throughout New Zealand.  Walnuts are then stored, cracked and separated into a variety of sizes and grades for sale to the hospitality, manufacturing and retail sectors.  Further development and processing has resulted in a year round business with a range of products including walnut oil, paste, flour, dukkah, chutney and pickled walnuts.  Grinding and grading the walnut shells produces abrasives and powders used in cosmetic and wood industries.

A Cracker of a Nut started with one second-hand imported cracking machine, purchased from Hamilton.  It now has a more effective Meyer machine from Texas, developed and used in the huge US pecan industry.

Cracker now has four sections in its plant, which employs eight full-time equivalents – storage, cracking and separating, grading and packing, and the oil pressing room.

The three stages of machine processing are cracking of dried nuts, wind separation of kernels from shell pieces and grading of kernels.  An infra-red scanner has been added to take out the last bits of shell.  The second-hand machine was imported from Kingaroy, Queensland, where it had been used on peanuts.

New Zealand consumes about 600 tonnes of walnut kernels a year, which at the average 40% crackout rate would be equivalent to 1500 tonnes of in-shell dried nuts.  A Cracker of a Nut is the biggest NZ processor, taking the majority of the NZ crop.  It did 150T of in-shell last year and expects 200T this year because of favourable growing conditions in Canterbury, so NZ is only one-seventh self-sufficient.  There is a big difference in quality between fresh domestic kernels and imported products.

Cracker processes year-round out of store (ambient temperature) and sells “freshly cracked” walnut products, with a three-week order fulfilment.  Customers are unique food stores like Nosh and Farro, fresh fruiterers, caterers, distributors like Bidvest and upmarket restaurants and lodges, like Blanket Bay and Huka. Cracker likes to deal directly with customers, not through food wholesalers.

Premium products include Meyric halves and large blonde pieces.  Generally sale prices are much higher for blond products whereas the baking grades with darker skins are competing with imported walnut products.

Cracker of a Nut sells three processed products which are cooked off-site: chutney, pickled and soap. It makes and sells three grades of oil: food grade, woodworkers and cosmetic.  There is also a market for grades of shell, ranging from pieces used in landscaping to fine powder for abrasives and cosmetics.

A Cracker of a Nut pays a season-long average of $4/kg for walnuts in the shell, which must be washed immediately after picking up from the ground, then air-dried on racks for a minimum of six weeks.  Those processes must be carried out by the orchard.  Once dried, walnuts can be bagged or crated and consigned to A Cracker of a Nut, which opens for new season receivals from June 1.  The initial payment of $1/kg is then followed by three more equal payments in October, December and the end of February, when processing of in-shell nuts finishes for the season.  Payments used to be on kernel weights that averaged out in a range of $3.70 to $4.20/kg shelled, but the keeping separate, weighing and paying on kernels got too complicated with up to 300 suppliers. In 2014 payment was changed to in-shell basis.

Premium prices are paid for Red Danube purple nuts ($7/kg) and for the Rex variety.  A Cracker of a Nut has been operating like a grower co-operative in terms of its acquisition and payments.

On March 31 2015, A Cracker of a Nut was sold by the Lawrences to a group of growers, eight of whom are directors.  Capital was raised from the larger growers and the opportunity to buy shares was given to all 300 suppliers, many of them very small.  The Lawrences will stay as investors, and the premises will remain on their property at Tricketts Rd, West Melton.