In 1995 Robyn and Paul Lee moved to a property in Canungra on the foothills of the Darlington Range, and established a small macadamia orchard. They planted 500 trees, which took many months of hard labour, as the land, previously used for grazing, was entirely bare. It took five years for the trees to produce a few buckets of nuts, and another two until there was enough nuts to sell. These days they sell their macadamia nuts through retail shops, wineries, markets and festivals across the Scenic Rim. They also keep bees, as bees are essential to the pollination process of macadamia trees, and sell jars of golden raw honey. A hands-on family business, Greenlee Farm strives to be ‘clean and green’. (www.greenleefarm.com.au)
ROBYN & PAUL LEE
You grow macadamia nuts and you have bee hives …
ROBYN: When we first planted our trees, the feeling of the macadamia industry was that you need European bees to pollinate your macadamia trees. So, we got our first hives, which were actually made by my father — he set them up for us. It became a bit of a sideline. At the moment we have, what, eight or ten hives. Sometimes we’re down to two or three. But the industry is now in two minds — is it the European bees that do the pollinations, or is it the native bees?
PAUL : It is a combination of both, I think.
And you end up with beautiful raw honey?
ROBYN: Yes, and it is produced in cycles. A month ago we didn’t have any honey, because our last robbing was due in February but a storm came through and knocked off all of the blossom. No food for the bees! Then, once we approach autumn and winter, the bees are in lockdown and they’re all just trying to keep themselves alive, so you don’t rob at that time. Now it seems we have an early start because winter finished a lot earlier than planned.
PAUL: There’s a lot of blossoming going on at the moment. It’ll be all ironbark flower. So, the flavour of the honey changes from year to year depending upon which flowers are in blossom.
You’ve been here twenty years. Why here and why macadamias?
PAUL: Evolution. We were in the mining game. Robyn was an accountant, and I was in engineering and maintenance. I actually come from Brisbane and Robyn comes from country Victoria. I was away and Robyn was looking for blocks of land. I probably would have looked on the northside. But she headed south and ended up in Canungra, and she found this block of land. It had water and it had a bit of acreage. We came here. We knew we had to put something on here. Unless you have buckets and buckets of money, you can’t have seventy-six acres … You need something to maintain it. Fences, roads … Otherwise it will just suck you dry. So, we looked at a lot of fruits. As I said, we were in the mining game. We were flying in and flying out. We needed something really robust. Soft fruits were no good to us because the window was too small to harvest. So we looked at macadamias and thought, ‘They’re tough pieces of work’.
ROBYN: We spent a lot of time at the DPI in Brisbane. They had a big library with lots of Department of Ag folders full of information about how to grow all of these different things. So, we looked at the soft fruits, the stone fruits, the citrus. The passionfruit was even a thing at one point. Then the macadamias. With macas, they can stay on the ground for several weeks before you have to pick them up, whereas with stone fruits or citrus, when they’re ready, they’re ready. You can’t say, ‘Oh, sorry. I’ll be back in two weeks.’ It doesn’t work like that.
It must have taken a lot of work to establish the trees …
PAUL: We were extremely naïve, and had literally no infrastructure.
ROBYN: No irrigation. Nothing.
PAUL: There was nothing on this hill.
ROBYN: Every tree … That hill, that was natural bush, but everything below was just a moonscape. We’ve planted everything else.
PAUL: We came here at the end of a ten-year drought. We just looked at it and said, ‘This is a nice place.’ Macadamias take seven years to grow. After about five years you get a couple of buckets of nuts. After that, they come on. They’re robust. They are natives and they grow well. There are lots of types of macadamias now, hundreds and hundreds of types. So we got some that were wind resistant, because it really blows up this valley. We have A16s and 741s, and they’ve been pretty good. In hindsight, we probably would have put all 741s in.
ROBYN: But you need the cross-pollination, so we were always going to have two varieties.
What do you do on an average day?
PAUL: It depends upon what time of the year it is. We go through a process … Harvest is from April through to September, so that day will be all about picking up and de-husking.
ROBYN: Summer is from November to March, and the peak water tends to happen in that period of time. Then, after the wet is pretty much finished, the nuts drop through the dry time.
PAUL: After harvest the nuts take about three weeks to dry. But then you have to maintain. You’ve got a thing called re-wetting. So, if it is raining, for instance, I need to turn off the heaters and the blowers so they don’t get re-wet. That crispness you get in those nuts is all about zero percentage moisture. It is important to get them dry. Then they come away from the shell and you get a good crack out. So, the amount of kernel you get is much greater when they’re dry.
What do you do with the shells?
PAUL: We recycle them. We compost them and they go back on the trees. After we’ve picked up the nuts, we’re into fertilising, composting, pruning and, if we need to, spraying those nasty little bugs that want to eat … Everything eats macadamias. They look tough but they’re not. Everything eats them. Cockatoos eat them. Rats eat them. A myriad of insects eat them. We monitor for macadamia nut borer, which is one of the bigger pests, and fruit spotting bug. We stick pheromones in little traps and then we go and count all the little bugs that get stuck in there on sticky paper. Then, when we see there are a lot of these types of bugs … There’s a guy over in Samford that breeds trichogramma wasps and he also breeds macadamia nut borer moth. So he puts the macadamia nut borer in a cage, they lay eggs on these little tram-ticket-size bits of cardboard, then he introduces the trichogramma wasp and they impregnate that egg with their own lava. Then he mails them out to me on Thursday, I get them and I pin them on the tree on Friday, and on Saturday the little trichogramma wasps come out and go looking for other macadamia nut borer eggs.
ROBYN: They leave them at the post office because they know they’ll hatch if they sit in our hot mailbox all day. So, it is basically flooding the orchard with a whole lot of good bugs to outnumber the bad bugs. That’s effectively what it is doing. You do that every week.
PAUL: So, we do that for eight or ten weeks, depending upon what sort of pressure is on. And we’re in the middle of the bush, so we get pressure from everywhere. And we’re so small they just help themselves. But if the pressure is really heavy — we might find a corner that is really bad — then we might have to spray, but we try not to.
Your nuts are simply delicious. How do you produce such perfect nuts?
PAUL: We look at every one of them because we manually sort them. We sit there with rubber gloves on and anything with defects, we turf. We only keep the very best. I eat all of the seconds. Our point of difference is that we do the whole lot. Other people generally don’t because it — picking, de-husking, sorting, grading — is very labour intensive. People usually grow them and send them to the processor, nut and shell, then the processor sorts them and grades them. Other people add value. Whereas we do the whole lot because we are so small. So, if we have a point of difference, that’s it. Gate to plate, as they say. And that’s why you get all these macadamias that have no blemishes. They’re not bruised or belted around by going through a mile of processing. It is a very cottage industry.