Pioneers of the pecan industry in Australia

Reaping the Golden Harvest – Rosalie and Mark Nowland, Summerland Pecans, Nana Glen

Nick Rose

The article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 4.12.10

You don’t need to have been brought up on the land to be a successful farmer – or pecan grower. In the case of Rosalie and her son Mark Nowland, you start off as a nurse and a photographer.

Now, with nearly twenty years’ behind them in the pecan industry, they are two of the most experienced growers in Australia, and amongst the first to secure organic certification.

Asked why they went into pecans back in the early 1990s, Mark says it was a methodical cost-benefit analysis of the options that were available to them at that time:

I checked off different things that would work for us…And pecans were the only things that had every box ticked, basically.”

The key criteria, Mark says, include the soil and the climate – particularly the cold winters, as pecans need a certain chill factor in order to flower – as well as the ready availability of irrigation. As an infant industry, pecans also made sense commercially, as compared to macadamias which Mark says had been over-planted, leading to ‘turmoil’ in the industry.

Mark and Rosalie in their processing shed
Mark and Rosalie in their processing shed

Mark sees nuts trees as in many ways a more sustainable agricultural product than crops which require frequent cultivation.

“Trees”, he asks, “how much better can you get for your paddocks?”

And the beauty of the pecan – a tree that lives for 200 years, and is productive for 100-150 – is that while its productivity increases over time, the work it requires reduces.

So “the older we get, the less work we have to do”, Mark says. “Once the trees are a certain size there’s not much real pruning you have to worry about. It’s just a matter of feeding and watering them, and shaking them”, he adds.

Mark and Rosalie planted their first trees in 1991, and now have an orchard of 685 trees on 6 hectares of their 34 hectare property in Nana Glen. Their first ‘proper harvest’ was in 2004, which was about 3 tonnes, and this past year, with 9 tonnes, was their biggest so far. However the harvests have only just started their upwards curve, as Mark explains:

With 9 tonne, that’s only 10-12 kilos per tree. Generally they talk about 40 kilos per tree, when they’re fully mature…So we’re looking at working up to around 35 tonne eventually.”

There is, as with any crop, a sustainable level of production. It is possible to push the tree too hard, and there are risks in doing so. Ideally, according to Mark, you should be aiming for about 60-70% productivity.

“Otherwise”, he says, “you can really affect the physiology of the tree, and it can go into [a period] of shock, which it can take several years to recover from. During that time, it won’t bear a nut”, he adds.

So it’s better to work within the reasonable limits of nature by not aiming for excessively high yields.

Rosalie and Mark have seen their returns from their Coffs growers’ market stall rise over the years, especially when they started selling bagged kernels, rather than whole nuts. This is definitely what customers prefer. “We’ve got some regular customers who get upset when we finish the harvest”, says Rosalie.

Rosalie on the ride-on
Rosalie on the ride-on

Their main market, however, is overseas – exporting to China. They sent 7 tonnes there this year, the third year they’ve been exporting, at a price of $3.60 per kilo for whole nuts. It’s this bulk order which allows them to pay the running costs of the farm, and make some additional capital investments in machinery.

Next year, with the premium that organic certification attracts, they anticipate that this per kilo price will increase by 50-80%.

Australia is still a very small player in the growing global pecan industry. The biggest producers are America  – the native home of the pecan is the Californian floodplains – Brazil, and China itself, which has devoted massive acreages to pecan orchards. When these start producing to their full extent, Mark and Rosalie will have to look to other markets – they also sell to Pakistan, Korea, Singapore and America – as well as those closer to home.