Almonds Hawke's Bay
The feasibility of growing almonds in Central Hawkes Bay.
A landscaper and gardener from a dairy farming family in Taranaki is now living in Central Hawke’s Bay, where he is growing almonds. He is also taking part in a feasibility study to ascertain whether almonds can be grown commercially and sustainably in the region.
Almonds are one of the most nutritious nuts being a good source of Vitamin E, magnesium, and other nutrients. They are also one of the highest plant sources of protein while on-going research points to a number of health benefits.
Tony Kuklinski confesses to getting a bit of a kick out of that joke that goes: ‘what’s the hardest part of being vegan? Having to get up so early to milk all those little almonds’. Tony, who lives in Hatuma, near Waipukurau, has been successfully growing almonds for the past 13 years, and is involved in a feasibility study to see whether almonds can be sustainably grown in the region – at scale and for a competitive price.
The $100,000 study has multiple partners including New Zealand Plant & Food Research, and the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI), which is investing $67,000 through the Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures Fund.
Further cash and in-kind contributions totalling $33,000 are being provided by Central Hawke’s Bay District Council, Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, Wairoa District Council, Hastings District Council and Picot Productions, the Nelson-based producer of the popular Pic’s peanut butter range and other nut butters. Both MPI and Plant & Food Research are involved in supporting trails to grow commercial crops of peanuts in Northland, as featured by Rural Delivery in 2021 (go here to see this story).
Tony and his wife Ellinore own Elforest landscaping design and maintenance company, living on the 13ha block where they now have some 300 experimental cropping trees, with a further 300 sapling trees planted on a block a short distance away.
He says the Mediterranean-style Central Hawke’s Bay’s climate with generally hot summers and mild winters with (usually) moderate rainfall is well suited growing almonds – and could be done without extensive irrigation, as is required in California. The American state produces about 80 percent of the world’s almonds from a ‘monocrop’ system, and where it has been estimated that five litres of water are required to grow just one almond.
After moving to Hawke’s Bay, and in the process of working on his landscaping business, Tony noticed there were thriving almond trees producing nuts naturally, seemingly without any kind of assistance. It got him thinking the region’s climate and soils would be ideal for growing almonds.
He began with two varieties, adding further varieties each season to see which ones grew the best, producing abundant crops of the most flavourful nuts. Of all available options, Tony says there are two varieties best suited to Hawke’s Bay, with tasty homemade almond butter helping to confirm his findings.
With the scientific name of prunus dulcis, the almond is related to peaches, plums and apricots, so Tony grafts his trees onto stone fruit rootstock. He grows his almonds with a cover crop under the trees to help retain soil moisture with the added bonus that sheep can be grazed in the orchard, also contributing to nutrients. “I'm a soils guy,” he says. “If you increase the organic matter content of your soil, you’re increasing your carbon and therefore the soil will store more water.”
He believes the success of this approach shows there is good potential for central Hawke’s Bay dry stock farmers to be able to diversify and derive additional value from their pastoral land by planting almonds.
Until now Tony’s trees have produced increasingly bountiful crops each year, however the heavy rains that caused havoc in the Hawke’s Bay this past winter destroyed his hopes for another bumper harvest for the 2023 season. He explains that almond trees are one of the earliest to flower, blooming as early as July through until September. “Our trees were flowering beautifully but then the rain came – and it was so heavy for days on end. The insects just could not fly to do their job pollinating the flowers.”
Some almond growers overseas – in California and Italy, for example – bring in hives of honeybees and bumblebees at pollination time, and this is what Tony did too in a bid to achieve some pollination. “When I didn’t see any honeybees around the trees I brought in hives of bumblebees, but it was even too wet for them.”
While honeybees are considered excellent pollinators for almonds, when the weather is poor, growers will bring in bumblebees as they will fly even on marginal days, making them ideal pollinators for early flowering crops. Bumblebees also show good mobility when foraging in orchards and their larger size helps with the distribution of pollen too.
For a Rural Delivery story about bumblebee pollination go here.