The Macadamia’s Lindi Botha poses questions to keynote speaker Dorran Bungay about his career and what he believes the future holds for efficient and sustainable nut processing.

When and how did your macadamia nut journey start?

My introduction was in 1981, when I installed an irrigation system for the first macadamia farm in Chipinge, Zimbabwe.

In 1983 I joined Eskom and soon thereafter, Agrelek (Eskom’s agricultural department) appointed me as the ‘behind the meter’ agricultural electrical engineer for the sub-tropical portfolio in Nelspruit. In those days Eskom had an abundance of electricity and my task was to design electrical solutions for agriculture. I was rapidly immersed in the engineering skills of thermodynamics and psychometrics that provided me with the heating, cooling and dehydration tools necessary for so many of South Africa’s’ national farming applications. I designed tobacco and fruit dehydration systems (mango, guava, pineapple), heating and cooling environments for crocodile and fish production farms, steam applications, such as soil pasteurisation, heating and cooling for greenhouses and nurseries, among others.

In 1989 my first macadamia farmer client, Ed van de Hoek, and my first processor client, SAD, found me. I quickly discovered that these nuts are easily destroyed by rough handling and indiscriminate preservation practices. This revelation fuelled my quest and passion to identify the loss factors and to promote the best practices to help growers preserve the quality and shelf-life of this highly nutritious and palatable nut. The time I had spent in an earlier abandoned career choice looking for pathogens under a microscope in a medical laboratory provided me with the proclivity for recognising the cause and extent of the biological deterioration that plagued macadamia kernels.

What fascinates you about macadamias?

The design of the fruit is unique and fascinating – the entire nut is a stunning recipe that delivers an amazing food source of awesome nutritional value. The resultant edible kernel has, unfortunately, the highest risk value of all tree nuts and is prone to a rapid shelf-life loss if mishandled. The combination of its high value nutrients and the many post-harvest perils that threaten the macadamia fruit demands skill and passionate detailed attention by management.

What are your top tips for preserving nut quality between orchard and factory?

Macadamias are, contrary to popular belief, highly perishable – a lettuce in a hard shell! There are therefore several aspects farmers need to keep in mind:

  • Ensure orchard floor hygiene before abscission and harvesting.
  • Gather (harvest) mature nuts rapidly within a week of abscission, sooner if there is rain and if the orchard floor is wet. Dehusking must be done on the same day as harvest.
  • Do not harvest nut-in-husk into plastic bags or containers that have no ventilation.
  • Handle nut-in-husk and nut-in-shell gently. Avoid bruising the kernel by dropping or other deformation, like squeezing in a dehusker.
  • Macadamia nut-in-shell must be cured immediately after harvest at the correct temperature and relative humidity.
  • The on-farm operation from abscission through to dispatch to the processor should be as fast as possible, ideally within two weeks.

The most important insight gained during your work with preserving quality?

Too few growers understand the need to sufficiently invest in the most efficient infrastructure vital to preserve the monetary value of post-harvest quality – which is no less difficult or important than managing the day-to-day operational field and phenology that produces macadamia nuts.

If there were one thing you wished farmers and processors would do to preserve quality, what would it be?

Farmers should buy into the value chain without abdicating their responsibility for their nuts  after they have left the farm gate. Processors and growers alike should regularly consume samples of their own macadamia production to be familiar with and proud of the quality they are sending into the wider world.

What inventions are still on your wish list?

There are three that are needed to improve efficiency and quality throughput: a dehusker that efficiently and quietly (noise means damage) removes husks without breaking or deforming the shell (which bruises the kernel); a cracking machine that is quieter, uses low energy, and produces a high percentage of wholes, with minimum milling dust; and a softer, more accurate styling method than the very damaging shaker tables.

Dorran Bungay headlines SA-hosted International Macadamia Symposium

Where will the industry be in 10 years and what will be the biggest drivers for success?

Macadamias have a great future. This high value crop is a relatively small component in the global nut trade, making up less than 2% of the world nut basket. The increasing importance of healthy eating habits has escalated the popularity and demand for plant-based protein and healthy fat snacks, so the present global macadamia production is simply too small to exploit the potential global market demand.

Agriculture is cyclical in nature and this industry is no exception. Many commodities and niche markets (like the macadamia) are, at times, subject to painful price fluctuations due to international politics, financial stress and market corrections. The current low price of macadamias is an opportunity for the industry to address all risky production aspects to improve and preserve quality and shelf-life. Consumers in the established markets have become progressively more sophisticated and will not easily accept the quality statement that is punted thus: “If it’s edible, it’s quality”.

The best driver of success will be achieved by those striving for “quality macadamias have zero defects”.