Pictured Above: Oribi Flats macadamia farmer Luke Dunstone inspects the nut set in one of his older orchards at Oasis Farm, one of the farms operated by Pegric Estates.

Dunstone, with his father Eric and his two brothers-in-law Nick Louw and Henco Barnard, oversees one of the largest macadamia operations in the province at 950ha under orchards, coupled with 130ha planted to essential oils.

With sandy soils and a climate ideally suited to macadamia production, the family increased its plantings from 400ha in 2018 to 950ha or 240 000 trees in 2021, with further expansion under way.

Capital investment over the past four years allowed for the addition of further infrastructure, including increased de-husking capacity, water storage and new irrigation schemes.

The micro-jet irrigation system and 800mm Irricheck soil moisture probes remain but Dunstone views “low-flow drip irrigation” as the ideal solution in the future, with their first two low-flow drip schemes installed. The plan is to expand the fertigation system across the whole faming enterprise.

But as a self-confessed big-picture enthusiast, Dunstone believes it’s time for a period of consolidation.

“South Africa’s macadamia industry has seen a decade of exponential growth with massive investment in orchard development and processing capacity. However, when the crop failed to meet industry yield predictions in 2020 and 2021, it was a clear sign to stop and take stock and improve the orchards we already have,” he said.

Understanding the industry

Valuable research and development were only now starting to catch up with the sector’s growth, with key findings coming to the fore, he added.

“I think we have been in unchartered territory for the past two decades because we just didn’t have the data for our particular area. The macadamia industry in this country is still very new, but we continue to learn how the market demand is changing.”

Dunstone agreed consumers were becoming more discerning, and buyers had more supply options than they had before.

“China, one of our biggest markets, has shifted in its demand criteria – its demand is for better quality nut-in-shell as its local supply fills the slightly lower quality market. The Indian market is untapped, but we are still trying to understand how and where we can enter that market. Both Europe and the United States are core markets for us, particularly for kernel. The future of our industry is now dependent on effective marketing by people who understand the complexities of each individual market. And to do that we have to produce higher quality nuts at a scale from tree varieties we are confident will perform to meet market demand. Quality is going to play an integral role and therefore real attention to detail in our orchards is imperative,” he said.

Bee hives – critical to the health of the orchards on the farms – are mounted on platforms to prevent vandalism by would-be honey thieves

Cautious optimism

While South Africa’s agricultural sector had enjoyed exponential growth and investment confidence since the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 (13% in 2020 and 8% in 2021), Dunstone said his natural optimism was now heavily laced with a dose of caution.

“In this country things can change overnight and in the macadamia industry, our expectations are very high. But these past two seasons have taught us to err on the side of caution when it comes to our own expectations. For example, those who produce macs in Mpumalanga are facing very different conditions from those we face here. Southern KwaZulu-Natal has the ideal growing conditions for macadamia trees but there are also those who are now farming macs in very marginal areas. Understanding yield expectation from orchards in different areas is now key.

“Further, we are only now beginning to understand how some yields can decrease as the trees mature, and the seasonal nature of the macadamia’s bearing cycle. These are the variables we are starting to use to further improve our estimation models: in previous years we merely didn’t have the data available to us.”

Pest increase

The increase in pest and fungi pressure in some areas had a “huge” effect on yield, which was evident in the thrips numbers recorded during the 2021 season, he added.

“We are also seeing an increase in nut borer. It is imperative that data is collected, recorded, and then analysed to help farmers better understand how the tree varieties perform, and how we can apply a management structure to get the optimum from our orchards.”

Dunstone said for the past few years the family operations had pushed to get the trees into the ground. But now they were asking themselves what improvements they could make; what about the effect of cross-pollination, for example; did they plant the trees too far apart, were they using the right pruning techniques, and which nut varieties best suited their individual farms?

“The reality is once the trees are planted, they take up to five years on average to start bearing. That means as we increasingly understand the crop, we have time to make certain changes that could benefit that orchard in the long run.”

Inter-planting to provide cross-pollination opportunities between varieties is offering farmers higher yields without escalating input costs.


In his newly planted orchards, Dunstone is now trialling interplanting the existing young trees with variable varieties for cross-pollination purposes, aimed at improving yields and bringing down pest loads. This, he says, ups the number of trees in the ground without increasing the additional input costs too much.

He pointed to a row of 842s planted one year ago, showing how he had inter-planted this orchard with 344s.

“Three years ago, we settled on spacing of 9mx4m between the trees – that was the standard space for our new orchards. But now we are experimenting and inter-planting different varieties among the existing young trees, creating a 9mx2m spacing. Depending on the individual needs of an orchard, I now know I can choose to plant at 9mx2m or 8mx3m or even 7mx2m in new developments. There is also a clear change of mindset and approach that is needed with this spacing, with effective pruning and management being crucial. Oribi Flats is a slightly colder region compared with the coast, and therefore we don’t have the heat units, with our trees growing less vigorously as a result. This lends itself to closer-planted orchards, which is why we are trying to see what would suit our area best to produce optimum yield.”

In the established orchards where the trees are, in some cases, 23 years old, Dunstone said his pruning strategy was to get the nut set closer to the tree trunk while still trying to maintain the tree’s shape.

“We are trying to gradually change our approach to how we prune. In certain blocks we have trialled pruning with a more hedge-like structure while maintaining our window openings. This will hopefully produce a better and denser nut set, due to the tree shape using all the potential bearing volume available. This will also allow us to change our management strategies, plant cover crops more effectively while creating more mulch, which can be utilised.”

However, Dunstone warned this method could not be used on all varieties.

“This is what we are trying to figure out and how best to use the different methods for different varieties.”

And the jury remains out on at what age trees should be replaced. “We have a clear idea on when a tree has reached its optimum nut-bearing age, but it is still uncertain when to remove it and replant. There are differing theories but only time will tell what the replant age will be in our area,” he said.

Interestingly, some farmers were experimenting with trellising macadamia trees, he observed. “These are the big thinkers, the guys who are asking big questions. That is very exciting for us, and hopefully we will be able to apply some of their innovative ideas on our farm in the future.”

Precise orchard management

Dunstone is a firm believer in the positive impact of cover crops coupled with very deep mulch and compost. So, all waste from their tea-tree distillery operation is mixed into the compost, which is made on-farm.

Pointing to a raceme as long as his forearm on a 23-year-old Beaumont, he said his orchard management is about being as precise as possible while adopting a more diverse strategic thinking method based on the outcomes of all the data and research now coming online.

With three young sons, it is his responsibility to make sure the ecology of his land is in pristine health long into the future, he added.

If he could list three things he had learned over the past three years while at the same time bearing in mind the variables of macadamia farming, based on “nothing is guaranteed”, Dunstone said success was about paying attention to detail, being open-minded to new ideas. and improving every aspect of on-farm practices.