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Macadamias: Can They Save Florida’s Agriculture?

November 28, 2006

By Susan Salisbury, The Palm Beach Post, Fla.

Nov. 27–LABELLE, Fla. — If George Anderson’s vision comes to fruition, Florida will one day become the nation’s macadamia capital, with the tasty, creamy nut surpassing citrus as its signature crop.

Florida’s fruit growers, worn out and worried by the diseases of citrus canker and greening, are clamoring for the macadamia trees faster than Anderson can produce them. He sold out the first 8,000 baby trees before they were even big enough to plant in the ground and expects to have another 10,000 ready in 2007. By 2008, Anderson plans to have another 160,000 trees available.

“You can plant macadamia trees where canker is. It will take over citrus as the state’s number one crop,” Anderson said recently at his 10-acre grove outside LaBelle in Hendry County.

The 69-year-old former financial planner and insurance agent from the Tampa Bay area started Anderson Macadamia Nut Arboretum Grove and Nursery 10 years ago when his hobby of growing macadamia trees became too big for his back yard in the Pinellas County town of Redington Shores.

“My wife told me to find some place to plant my trees, so I bought this land,” said Anderson, who gave up sailing and retirement to devote himself to the macadamia enterprise.

Expert opinion, in particular that of horticulturists at the University of Florida, has maintained that macadamia trees weren’t a viable commercial proposition in the state.

But Anderson said he has found that the trees will thrive in Florida if grown in soil treated with sulfuric acid.

Gene McAvoy, a multi-county extension agent based in LaBelle who is familiar with Anderson’s operation, said the macadamia nut has good prospects as a commercial crop.

“George has done an amazing job at selecting varieties that are suitable for Florida conditions and working on the cultural conditions necessary to grow those macadamias,” McAvoy said. “You have to give the guy credit. He is really a visionary in that regard.”

Anderson says he didn’t start his macadamia grove to offer an alternative to citrus, but the canker and greening infestations have turned it into that. In addition to the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005, which cut citrus production sharply, the state and federal governments waged an unsuccessful war for 10 years against canker, a bacterial disease that blemishes fruit and weakens trees.

The pressure has increased with renewed attention to greening, an insect-spread bacterium that is fatal to citrus trees.

Anderson’s business took off in October 2005 after citrus growers read about him in a Florida Farm Bureau publication.

“I got 120 calls from citrus growers. I returned the first 20 and got 14 orders and sold all my available trees,” Anderson said. “There’s many more growers who want them.” Within a day, Anderson had sold all his available 8,000 2-foot trees at $30 each — a volume discount — to 14 growers.

While a couple of deliveries have been made, most of those baby trees are still in 4-inch pots in Anderson’s greenhouse and will go out to their buyers beginning in December.

“I wanted to take care of the small growers first. I wouldn’t sell more than 1,000 to any one grower. I don’t have enough production yet to handle the large growers,” Anderson said.

Paul Teal, 49, a Central Florida citrus grower with 50 acres in Highlands County and 38 acres in Lake County, has ordered 750 macadamia trees and is excited about planting them alongside his tangerines and other specialty fruit.

“He seems to have taken up horticulture as a hobby and really gotten into these macadamias,” Teal said of Anderson. “(He’s) done a fine job of selecting these varieties over the years in his personal grove.” Teal hasn’t had canker in the groves he owns, but has dealt with it as production manager at a larger citrus concern, Heller Brothers in Winter Garden, where there has been canker in the area.

“I’ve been looking for something that is low-input and high-value,” Teal said of macadamia cultivation. “Basically, it just struck me as perfect. It is a very hardy tree with no known bacterial or fungal pests.” Growers like the nuts’ economics because dollar returns are estimated to be high, while labor and growing costs are low.

Anderson estimates that some varieties will yield as much as 40 pounds per tree by the third year, and by the 12th year, a 10-acre grove will have the potential to produce a crop valued at $1.5′million.

The self-taught Anderson is ready with information the growers need to cultivate the trees. He’s spent the decade working with 28 varieties from around the world and narrowed the top prospects to six.

Among the most promising are the A-4 and A-16, patented Australian hybrids for which he holds the U.S. propagation agreement.

“This tree is my heaviest producer with 100 pounds,” Anderson says, peering at the cluster of nuts on a 5-year-old A-16. “This is what my growers are going crazy over. The A-4 and the A-16 have an incredible growth rate. By the third year, they are producing 30 to 40 pounds.” Despite being a small grower, Anderson’s greenhouse is equipped with new technology, such as sensors that detect when leaves are dry and a rainforest-like misting system. Red shade cloth tops the greenhouse because it’s been proven to promote growth.

He also formulates and mixes his own growth solution for cuttings.

To hear Anderson tell it, the macadamia is as near-perfect a crop as any in existence.

He’s never had to use an ounce of pesticides or insecticides on any of the more than 870 trees in the grove. Unlike citrus, which must be picked by hand and quickly trucked to a packinghouse or processing plant, macadamia nuts practically harvest themselves.

They fall to the ground when ripe and the outer husk splits open, leaving the kernel in a hard, glossy brown shell. A person operating a motorized cart with an attachment similar to that used to pick up golf balls then scoops up the nuts.

“The harvest is from August through November. By mid-December the last of them will be down,” Anderson said of the harvest. The nuts fall gradually; thus, two people can handle a 10-acre grove.

After several weeks of being air-dried on racks with fans and then in a dehydrator, the nuts can be cracked by hand or by a mechanical husker.

Or the nuts can be kept for up to a year in their hard shells, giving a grower the option of waiting to sell when prices are best.

Although she’s not a citrus grower, Jupiter Farms resident Susan Kennedy, an environmental attorney and executive director of the Everglades Foundation, is one of Anderson’s first customers.

This summer she planted the first 100 macadamia trees on her family’s 5 acres, and she has 200 more still in pots that will be planted in the ground when they are a little larger.

“It seems like a way to bring in enough money to pay the taxes,” said Kennedy, 39, who has had both cows and native plants to qualify for an agricultural exemption in the past. “We don’t have to spray for bugs and can control the watering through a drip system. The macadamia trees are environmentally friendly.”

Some citrus growers say they’ll stick with oranges and grapefruit, but they’re not surprised by the interest in alternative crops.

“Macadamia nuts are as logical as anything,” said Dan Richey, president of Riverfront Groves in Vero Beach.

McAvoy, the extension agent, said the challenge for Anderson now will be creating an infrastructure for everything from drying and shelling equipment to developing the trucking, packing and marketing to support the fledgling industry.

“With macadamia nuts, the Ben and Jerry’s do not think of South Florida,” he said, referring to the gourmet ice-cream company. “The big challenge is to come up with quality, consistency and economically competitive prices and go into that market.” Anderson says he wasn’t planning on working five days a week at his age, and he would like to retire for what would be the third time.

He hopes to eventually turn the business over to his grandson, Joe Adams, 23, who’s taking horticulture classes.

But the macadamia man growers now call “Andmac” believes the crop is part of Florida’s future.

“The grower in Florida who has had land in his family for years now can have a crop where he will not have the economic pressure to sell to a developer,” Anderson said. “Macadamias will be the new cash crop of Florida.”

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