Cultivating markets for the ‘king of nuts’

Cultivating markets for the ‘king of nuts’

Walnuts - Trickett's Grove

Tucked away in West Melton is Walnuts New Zealand – a co-operative focused on elevating the humble walnut into a premium product in New Zealand, with aspirations to break into the lucrative overseas market.

The Canterbury region provides the ideal climate and soil conditions for walnut growing, with orchards first established in the area in the 1970s. There are now around 275 hectares of trees in Canterbury, cultivated by 43 walnut growers. In 2015, the growers banded together to buy Walnuts New Zealand, proving the old adage of strength in numbers.

A lot has happened in the nine years since, with General Manager Kevin Parish taking over the reins in 2022. “Walnuts are really the king of nuts,” says Mr Parish. “They are one of the richest plant-sources of Omega-3 and Omega-6; are nutrient dense with eight essential vitamins and minerals, including manganese, magnesium, folate and vitamins B1 and B6; and they are a great source of protein and fibre. Eating walnuts daily has been shown to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, lower cholesterol, promote digestive heath, and improve critical thinking ability in young people and slow cognitive decline in older people. So there are a lot of benefits.”

With 250 tonne per annual harvest, a key part of Mr Parish’s role has been driving efficiencies and introducing automation to what was largely a manual process of shelling, sorting and processing the nuts.
“In the past everything was done by hand, which was time-consuming and also required more staff. We have since invested in key machinery to streamline the process, including a bulk tipping system and inline processing capability, and a Buhler vision sorting machine, which has been a game-changer. This machine is able to sort all of the shells from the nuts, and also into different grades according to colour, saving us time and enabling us to trim the team to only seven FTEs. It also means we can process two tonne of walnuts per day, instead of the previous 600kg.”

The lighter nuts are the premium nuts, which are packaged whole and in pieces and sold to supermarkets and direct to consumers under the co-op’s retail brand, Trickett’s Grove. The lesser grade is destined for bakery and ingredient customers to be used as an ingredient. There is also an organic brand representing the approximately 15% of growers that are BioGro Organic certified.

They have a strong traceability story, with the ability to trace each batch of walnuts to a grower – and it is that local angle that resonates with their customers, as they compete against around 1,000 tonne of imported walnuts per year. They also operate as zero waste – with 140 tonne of shells upcycled into compost each year, and any leftover ‘mash’ from the machines processed into animal feed.

In 2018, they launched a new product to the market, which has been steadily gaining traction – walnut oil. It’s small batch processed on-site using screw press and gravity settling, and now with their GACC registration approved, it opens the door to the China market.

“We currently process 850kg of walnut oil from about 2.5 tonne of walnuts,” says Mr Parish. “It’s only part-time, although we are keen to extend this to full-time once we get a foothold into China and other Asian markets. It is a great product, as it has a longer shelf-life and is more convenient for consumers. We have also found that in the Chinese market, they understand the health benefits of walnuts, and value New Zealand products, so part of our job has already been done.”

It is that health and wellness market that Mr Parish believes will be key in growing their market share and competing overseas over the next few years. “We have been steadily telling our story to consumers, with initiatives like ‘try 30g for 30 days’ which has been working well. Ideally in ten years’ time, we would like to be recognised and known as the primary walnut brand in New Zealand, as well as securing a successful export market. We’d like to continue to improve our payout to growers, to ensure walnut growing remains a viable and sustainable land use option.

“We’re also looking at how we can further diversify our product offering, such as potentially packaging our oil into capsules, exploring the nutraceutical and cosmetics markets, and even playing with the idea of flavoured or fortified oils. We’re excited to see how we can really help to put Canterbury on the map in terms of being a leading food producing region.”

Trickett's Grove

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