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San Diego's passionate macadamia community

Trees hung with nickles

Tom Cooper: “I even have a Jewish macadamia nut tree. I brought it back from Israel, where I went to consult for a doctor who was planting a grove there.” - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Tom Cooper: “I even have a Jewish macadamia nut tree. I brought it back from Israel, where I went to consult for a doctor who was planting a grove there.”

There’s a sort of magic about the creamy, softly crunchy nuggets. They’re tropical, exotic, sublime...expensive. Tempting ivory spheres in glass bottles with palm trees on the label. We parcel them out carefully, savor them one by one; they’re not like peanuts. They make any vegetable dish, salad, candy, cookie, cake, pie, ice cream more luxurious. Cheesecake? Wonderful. Macadamia nut cheesecake? Exponentially more wonderful. Or perhaps we’re just lured by our dreams of Hawaii. The industry there has promoted the connection for decades.

You can save the airfare. San Diego County has one of the biggest macadamia-growing businesses in the continental U.S., which actually isn’t saying much, compared to Hawaii. But if you’re a true macadamia nut, there are places in North County where you can stand knee-deep in the things — heaps of macs in their smooth, caramel-brown shells, racks of five-quart Ziploc bags of dry-roasted white meats, and orchards strewn with the avocado-green, leathery-husked nuts that literally fall from the trees.

Tom Cooper admires a suspended cluster of macs in his grove. “Every one like a bunch of nickels, I like to say.”

Cockeyed letters on the small shack nearby say “Cooper’s Nut House.” Tom, of course, couldn’t resist adding, “Where all the nuts aren’t hanging on trees.” The Nut House is in Tom’s front yard on Willow Glen Road in Fallbrook. For 30 years, he’s nursed and nurtured four acres of macadamias from around the globe. Today he has 400 trees of 36 varieties. “I even have a Jewish macadamia nut tree. I brought it back from Israel, where I went to consult for a doctor who was planting a grove there.”

Tom’s in his early 60s, short, stocky, with his thick salt-and-pepper hair, a perpetual smile, and a carefully groomed mustache that with a little more time could turn into a righteous handlebar. At the Nut House, depending on your inclination, Tom will sell you homemade mac products (including Belgian chocolate-covered t morsels and a macadamia brittle that tastes of mellow, buttery browned sugar) or run down some DNA studies he and the state ag guys are currently discussing. He has a serious scientific G interest in the crop and strong opinions about the advantages of various mac varieties. On the other hand, to the Nut House’s back door he’s affixed a bumper sticker that says, “Dual Airbags: Bill and Hillary.”

Once an Orange County aerial photographer, Tom moved permanently to Fallbrook around 1969 and began planting macadamias to generate some income from the land. “I’d had a friend on Balboa Island in Newport Beach who had a macadamia growing in his front yard. And that land is all sand, and really about three feet below sea level. I figured this must be a pretty hardy tree, and that got me fascinated. So I started going to California Macadamia Society meetings in Carlsbad, and from there I became involved in the industry. I decided to have a nursery to offset the cost. And since then, I think I’ve sold more than 150,000 trees. I had two orders alone that totaled 35- or 37,000.

“By 1978 or so, from being involved with the society and publishing papers in the yearbook, I’m traveling to Mexico and other places as a consultant. I’ve been to Mexico more than 50 times. I’ve been to Costa Rica about 30 times. Brazil, Panama, Israel, Guatemala. Day before yesterday, some man called from Pomona, and he represents some wealthy guy from Veracruz state who needs the machines I manufacture.”

The newest trees are being planted primarily in Mexico and Central America, but the oldest macadamia in the Americas is still growing along Strawberry Creek on the UC-Berkeley campus. It’s one of several planted there in 1877, a year before the tree was introduced in Hawaii. Macs aren’t native to Hawaii at all. They grow wild on mountain slopes in the rain forests of Queensland and New South Wales, Australia. In 1858 a British botanist discovered the trees and named the new genus for Australian scientist John Macadam. The 20- to 50-foot evergreens are related to the spiky, holly-leafed protea flower.

Macs are divided into three subspecies (only two edible) and a host of varieties. Some grow globe-shaped, some pyramidal or columnar. They have fine-textured, silvery-gray bark and bear a dense canopy of dark-green leaves, from five to eight inches long, with scalloped edges. The leaves grow in whorls of three or four at intervals along each branch. In spring each branch bears several long, drooping clusters of lightly fragrant pink blooms that emerge along thin, flexible stems — racemes. With luck, by fall every pollinated flower becomes a macadamia nut, from one to two inches in diameter. Mature, they hang like pebbly, dull Christmas ornaments threaded on a string. The leathery husk splits and reveals the very hard, smooth shell that covers the ivory-white nut meat. Many obliging mac varieties then harvest themselves by dropping the green-husked nuts to the ground.

The first Berkeley macs, grown from Australian seed, were curiosities planted by a faculty member; the Hawaiian originals, also from Australian seeds, were groves planted by a sugar company. Like avocados, macs take three to four years to bear well and must be propagated commercially by grafting, so supply has rarely met demand. Hawaii has promoted this exclusive image, developed the market, and is currently the world’s largest producer. But eventually they’ll be outstripped by Australia, which has only recently become an international supplier. Hawaii supplies about 45 million pounds of macs a year, mostly to the U.S. mainland and Asia. Southern California’s contribution to the mac frenzy is about 300,000 pounds.

If you buy your macadamias in stores that offer them dry' roasted in bulk or in cellophane packs, it’s likely they’re part of the local harvest. They might be from a single tree in a suburban backyard or from a grove of half a dozen trees in Ventura County, the raw nuts shipped overnight to Escondido to be shelled and dry roasted. According to mac grower Jim Russell, president of the Fallbrook-based California Macadamia Society, not everyone in the industry tends acres of the trees.

On a warm Saturday morning in early November, Jim is emcee and ringmaster for the society’s 1998 annual meeting and field day, a chance for growers and potential growers to meet, participate in seminars on growing, grafting, processing, and marketing, or to compare notes about the recent crop year. More than 100 people — many retirees, with some young couples mixed in — meet this year at Rancho Rosa Sattoria in the heights of Rainbow — acres of citrus, avocado, and macadamia groves surrounding a secluded ranch house, pond, and sloping lawns under towering eucalyptus. Only a few attendees look like seasoned farmers, and shiny new sedans outnumber pickups. People have come from L.A. and Orange Counties and from Baja.

Says Jim, “In California, the growing range for macadamias is from San Luis Obispo south, west of the mountains. There are some microclimates north of there that you can grow them, and some south of there that just get too cold. Cold is the limiting factor — 28 degrees for about four hours.

“California produces about 300,000 pounds of macs a year. Almost all of them are retailed here in Southern California, raw or dry roasted. The coops sell to some bird farms, especially where they raise macaws. They have to have something tough for those birds to chew on, and the shell of a macadamia is very tough to crack. So they mail the unshelled nuts around the country. I think the crop year that just ended, they probably marketed 35,000 pounds to bird owners alone. And they want good nuts. The bird won’t bother to crack it open if it’s junk. But in general, macadamias do have that luxury image. And you know it, too, when the economy goes south. Sales disappear.”

Both Tom Cooper and Jim Russell emphasize a major difference between Hawaiian and San Diego County macadamias on the store shelf. According to Jim, “The industry standard for macadamias [in jars from Hawaii] is a nut that has been deep-fried in coconut oil, just like you make french fries, then they use gum arabic to glue the salt on. Those taste super to most people, but here in Southern California, with the large segment of the population that is health conscious, they want raw or unadulterated products. All the oil in a macadamia nut is monoun-saturated, so a growing segment of the population is willing to pay a premium for raw nuts. But the majority of the total macadamia crop goes to food processors, to be added to baked goods or ice cream.”

The cultivation of macs in San Diego County goes back to the 1940s. “There are several old individual trees around,” says Jim. “The oldest I’m aware of is in Coronado, though it’s not in very good shape now. The first commercial grove in Southern California was planted in Oceanside.”

From Oceanside Boulevard, Crouch Street winds up a dry hill. At the top, to the west, near Hunsaker and Grandview Streets, the county’s oldest macadamia grove still stands. The original three and a half acres were planted in the late 1940s and grafted to the Cape variety in the 1970s. The trees are towering now and form a solid, low-lying green canopy over the land. A few green nuts from this year’s crop still dangle from the branches. Ominously, several rows of trees along the margin of the grove seem to have been felled haphazardly, trunks and limbs and leaf debris heaped in piles; a newly laid asphalt slab bites into one corner. But the ground within the grove is cleared of fallen nuts and leaves. On hot summer days, it must be a cool, verdant retreat.

Another early grove can be found in Carlsbad. It was planted in the 1950s by Ede Westree and her husband. Ede was the first secretary of the Macadamia Society. At their organizational meeting, she volunteered to take notes because she knew shorthand, and the job lasted for years. “My husband and I planted 92 trees right in what is now just about the dead center of Carlsbad. On Las Flores Drive, right on the 1-5 freeway. When they built the freeway, they took a little corner off it. Then they widened it and took a little more. But you can still see the grove there.

“After our trees got producing, there was no marketing association, so we used to sell our nuts right from our house. Just sell them in the shell. And we used to take our macadamias to Escondido, to Masters Chocolate. They’d dip them in chocolate and pack them in regular candy boxes, and we’d sell them out of our home. We’d get $3.00 a box, and we made a profit at that.

“There was a tree up in Santa Ana that was planted back in the ’30s or ’40s. A Dr. Hall brought it in from Hawaii and put it in his back yard, then civilization grew up around it, and the tree ended up in the middle of an asphalt parking lot. It never got watered, it never got fertilized, but it put out a crop year after year. We used to take nuts from that tree to plant in San Diego.”

Today most of the county’s growers sell their harvest to the 30-year-old co-op Gold Crown Macadamias, in Escondido. Here the nuts are hulled, dried, and either sold in the shell to retailers or aviaries or as shelled nuts to food processors. They take product from growers with one tree or with hundreds.

Tom Cooper is one of the growers who prefers the do-it-yourself approach. Aside from Cooper’s Nut House, his nursery and experimental work with varietals, and his consulting, he’s invented some processing machinery, maintains an active Web site (as do Gold Crown and the California Macadamia Society), and processes his own and others’ harvests. The production area is in the middle of the grove, behind Tom’s rustic-looking home.

No matter what variety you grow, it’s important to get the thick husk off as soon as possible to start the drying process. In a single-tree operation, it’s usually done by hand. Tom’s dehusking machine pops out the hard nut, discards the husk, and rolls the nuts down a ramp that drops out the nuts too small to be worth processing. Next the nuts are spread in cubbyholes in a drying cabinet — home-built hardware cloth shelves on a heavy wood frame.

“This is electrically operated, with a thermostatic controller. We go 90 degrees for the first 24 hours, then 100 for 24 hours, then 110 for the last two or three days. There’s good air circulation in here, and it’s nice and warm.” His solar dryer looks like an old water tank with fiberglass and collectors on the roof. It has a thermostat-controlled fan for heat and air circulation and holds the nuts at a perfect 110 degrees.

“And this is my new cracker. I’ve applied for a patent on it.” The sheet-metal device has a funnel-like feeder at the top, a square metal body, and an opening at the bottom to release the cracked nuts. “It has a vibrating feeder on it to keep the nuts from jamming. It feeds

them right into the cracker so you have a continuous flow. You put 50 pounds of nuts in there and put a bucket under the other end and just turn it on.” The machine makes a racket like gravel in a blender.

Tom moves to what looks like a double sink, with a low partition between them. “This is like a waterfall. You dump in the bucket of cracked shells and nuts. Then you fill one side with water, and this side half full, and turn the pump on. The pump sucks the water out of here, blows it into here under high pressure, the nuts float to the top and go over the waterfall, the shells are heavier and sink to the bottom. And any nuts that don’t have a good oil content will also sink with the shells. Then the good nuts have to be redried immediately for about two or three hours. Then they’re sorted by hand, looking for discolorations or any cosmetic defects.”

Around Tom’s processing area are bags and hampers and bins and piles of macs in various stages of drying and shelling. They look perfect, delicious, a mac-nut’s dream of heaven. Just stick your hands into a pile and eat all you’d like. “Well, they look good, but they’re not. They’re throw-outs. They’re dry, not enough oil in these. What looks like good, usable stuff is trash because it didn’t have enough oil in it to float in the water-sort process. If it doesn’t have enough oil, it’s not worth messing with, even though you’re throwing away some product. And these here, see this slight discoloration? They might not taste bad, but a buyer will look at one nut that has a little defect in it and think...uh-oh...and maybe think the whole lot is bad.

“They can make chicken feed, or mulch. And I compost a lot of the throw-outs. My seedlings grow in a mix of this compost and soil. And a guy in Rainbow who grows coffee trees in his nursery needs a real porous soil, so he uses the compost with a higher shell content.”

Macadamias are a wonder. The oil can be extracted for cosmetics, lotions, and soaps. Macadamia liqueur is popular in Hawaii and Central America. One manufacturer uses the ground shells to make pencils. “They can be used for salad - oil or for cooking,” says Tom, “but the first time you heat it, you burn the oil of macadamia essences out of it, and it stinks to high heaven. I’ve experimented with it. But once the essences are burned off, it makes a wonderful polyunsaturated, no-cholesterol oil for frying any food.”

Even with the long wait for a tree to produce, the high water requirements, the cottage-industry nature of the nut processing, and the potential for the market to bottom occasionally, mac growers seem devoted to their crops. “Macadamias arc a lot of work,” admits Jim Russell, “but they’re very pretty trees. The markets come and go, but I still think it’s worth growing. Nurseries still sell the trees, but of course, the natural enemy of the macadamia in California is housing. I’m not sure I could say it’s worth buying land to plant them, but if you’ve got the land, it’s certainly worth the time to grow them.”

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Tom Cooper: “I even have a Jewish macadamia nut tree. I brought it back from Israel, where I went to consult for a doctor who was planting a grove there.” - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Tom Cooper: “I even have a Jewish macadamia nut tree. I brought it back from Israel, where I went to consult for a doctor who was planting a grove there.”

There’s a sort of magic about the creamy, softly crunchy nuggets. They’re tropical, exotic, sublime...expensive. Tempting ivory spheres in glass bottles with palm trees on the label. We parcel them out carefully, savor them one by one; they’re not like peanuts. They make any vegetable dish, salad, candy, cookie, cake, pie, ice cream more luxurious. Cheesecake? Wonderful. Macadamia nut cheesecake? Exponentially more wonderful. Or perhaps we’re just lured by our dreams of Hawaii. The industry there has promoted the connection for decades.

You can save the airfare. San Diego County has one of the biggest macadamia-growing businesses in the continental U.S., which actually isn’t saying much, compared to Hawaii. But if you’re a true macadamia nut, there are places in North County where you can stand knee-deep in the things — heaps of macs in their smooth, caramel-brown shells, racks of five-quart Ziploc bags of dry-roasted white meats, and orchards strewn with the avocado-green, leathery-husked nuts that literally fall from the trees.

Tom Cooper admires a suspended cluster of macs in his grove. “Every one like a bunch of nickels, I like to say.”

Cockeyed letters on the small shack nearby say “Cooper’s Nut House.” Tom, of course, couldn’t resist adding, “Where all the nuts aren’t hanging on trees.” The Nut House is in Tom’s front yard on Willow Glen Road in Fallbrook. For 30 years, he’s nursed and nurtured four acres of macadamias from around the globe. Today he has 400 trees of 36 varieties. “I even have a Jewish macadamia nut tree. I brought it back from Israel, where I went to consult for a doctor who was planting a grove there.”

Tom’s in his early 60s, short, stocky, with his thick salt-and-pepper hair, a perpetual smile, and a carefully groomed mustache that with a little more time could turn into a righteous handlebar. At the Nut House, depending on your inclination, Tom will sell you homemade mac products (including Belgian chocolate-covered t morsels and a macadamia brittle that tastes of mellow, buttery browned sugar) or run down some DNA studies he and the state ag guys are currently discussing. He has a serious scientific G interest in the crop and strong opinions about the advantages of various mac varieties. On the other hand, to the Nut House’s back door he’s affixed a bumper sticker that says, “Dual Airbags: Bill and Hillary.”

Once an Orange County aerial photographer, Tom moved permanently to Fallbrook around 1969 and began planting macadamias to generate some income from the land. “I’d had a friend on Balboa Island in Newport Beach who had a macadamia growing in his front yard. And that land is all sand, and really about three feet below sea level. I figured this must be a pretty hardy tree, and that got me fascinated. So I started going to California Macadamia Society meetings in Carlsbad, and from there I became involved in the industry. I decided to have a nursery to offset the cost. And since then, I think I’ve sold more than 150,000 trees. I had two orders alone that totaled 35- or 37,000.

“By 1978 or so, from being involved with the society and publishing papers in the yearbook, I’m traveling to Mexico and other places as a consultant. I’ve been to Mexico more than 50 times. I’ve been to Costa Rica about 30 times. Brazil, Panama, Israel, Guatemala. Day before yesterday, some man called from Pomona, and he represents some wealthy guy from Veracruz state who needs the machines I manufacture.”

The newest trees are being planted primarily in Mexico and Central America, but the oldest macadamia in the Americas is still growing along Strawberry Creek on the UC-Berkeley campus. It’s one of several planted there in 1877, a year before the tree was introduced in Hawaii. Macs aren’t native to Hawaii at all. They grow wild on mountain slopes in the rain forests of Queensland and New South Wales, Australia. In 1858 a British botanist discovered the trees and named the new genus for Australian scientist John Macadam. The 20- to 50-foot evergreens are related to the spiky, holly-leafed protea flower.

Macs are divided into three subspecies (only two edible) and a host of varieties. Some grow globe-shaped, some pyramidal or columnar. They have fine-textured, silvery-gray bark and bear a dense canopy of dark-green leaves, from five to eight inches long, with scalloped edges. The leaves grow in whorls of three or four at intervals along each branch. In spring each branch bears several long, drooping clusters of lightly fragrant pink blooms that emerge along thin, flexible stems — racemes. With luck, by fall every pollinated flower becomes a macadamia nut, from one to two inches in diameter. Mature, they hang like pebbly, dull Christmas ornaments threaded on a string. The leathery husk splits and reveals the very hard, smooth shell that covers the ivory-white nut meat. Many obliging mac varieties then harvest themselves by dropping the green-husked nuts to the ground.

The first Berkeley macs, grown from Australian seed, were curiosities planted by a faculty member; the Hawaiian originals, also from Australian seeds, were groves planted by a sugar company. Like avocados, macs take three to four years to bear well and must be propagated commercially by grafting, so supply has rarely met demand. Hawaii has promoted this exclusive image, developed the market, and is currently the world’s largest producer. But eventually they’ll be outstripped by Australia, which has only recently become an international supplier. Hawaii supplies about 45 million pounds of macs a year, mostly to the U.S. mainland and Asia. Southern California’s contribution to the mac frenzy is about 300,000 pounds.

If you buy your macadamias in stores that offer them dry' roasted in bulk or in cellophane packs, it’s likely they’re part of the local harvest. They might be from a single tree in a suburban backyard or from a grove of half a dozen trees in Ventura County, the raw nuts shipped overnight to Escondido to be shelled and dry roasted. According to mac grower Jim Russell, president of the Fallbrook-based California Macadamia Society, not everyone in the industry tends acres of the trees.

On a warm Saturday morning in early November, Jim is emcee and ringmaster for the society’s 1998 annual meeting and field day, a chance for growers and potential growers to meet, participate in seminars on growing, grafting, processing, and marketing, or to compare notes about the recent crop year. More than 100 people — many retirees, with some young couples mixed in — meet this year at Rancho Rosa Sattoria in the heights of Rainbow — acres of citrus, avocado, and macadamia groves surrounding a secluded ranch house, pond, and sloping lawns under towering eucalyptus. Only a few attendees look like seasoned farmers, and shiny new sedans outnumber pickups. People have come from L.A. and Orange Counties and from Baja.

Says Jim, “In California, the growing range for macadamias is from San Luis Obispo south, west of the mountains. There are some microclimates north of there that you can grow them, and some south of there that just get too cold. Cold is the limiting factor — 28 degrees for about four hours.

“California produces about 300,000 pounds of macs a year. Almost all of them are retailed here in Southern California, raw or dry roasted. The coops sell to some bird farms, especially where they raise macaws. They have to have something tough for those birds to chew on, and the shell of a macadamia is very tough to crack. So they mail the unshelled nuts around the country. I think the crop year that just ended, they probably marketed 35,000 pounds to bird owners alone. And they want good nuts. The bird won’t bother to crack it open if it’s junk. But in general, macadamias do have that luxury image. And you know it, too, when the economy goes south. Sales disappear.”

Both Tom Cooper and Jim Russell emphasize a major difference between Hawaiian and San Diego County macadamias on the store shelf. According to Jim, “The industry standard for macadamias [in jars from Hawaii] is a nut that has been deep-fried in coconut oil, just like you make french fries, then they use gum arabic to glue the salt on. Those taste super to most people, but here in Southern California, with the large segment of the population that is health conscious, they want raw or unadulterated products. All the oil in a macadamia nut is monoun-saturated, so a growing segment of the population is willing to pay a premium for raw nuts. But the majority of the total macadamia crop goes to food processors, to be added to baked goods or ice cream.”

The cultivation of macs in San Diego County goes back to the 1940s. “There are several old individual trees around,” says Jim. “The oldest I’m aware of is in Coronado, though it’s not in very good shape now. The first commercial grove in Southern California was planted in Oceanside.”

From Oceanside Boulevard, Crouch Street winds up a dry hill. At the top, to the west, near Hunsaker and Grandview Streets, the county’s oldest macadamia grove still stands. The original three and a half acres were planted in the late 1940s and grafted to the Cape variety in the 1970s. The trees are towering now and form a solid, low-lying green canopy over the land. A few green nuts from this year’s crop still dangle from the branches. Ominously, several rows of trees along the margin of the grove seem to have been felled haphazardly, trunks and limbs and leaf debris heaped in piles; a newly laid asphalt slab bites into one corner. But the ground within the grove is cleared of fallen nuts and leaves. On hot summer days, it must be a cool, verdant retreat.

Another early grove can be found in Carlsbad. It was planted in the 1950s by Ede Westree and her husband. Ede was the first secretary of the Macadamia Society. At their organizational meeting, she volunteered to take notes because she knew shorthand, and the job lasted for years. “My husband and I planted 92 trees right in what is now just about the dead center of Carlsbad. On Las Flores Drive, right on the 1-5 freeway. When they built the freeway, they took a little corner off it. Then they widened it and took a little more. But you can still see the grove there.

“After our trees got producing, there was no marketing association, so we used to sell our nuts right from our house. Just sell them in the shell. And we used to take our macadamias to Escondido, to Masters Chocolate. They’d dip them in chocolate and pack them in regular candy boxes, and we’d sell them out of our home. We’d get $3.00 a box, and we made a profit at that.

“There was a tree up in Santa Ana that was planted back in the ’30s or ’40s. A Dr. Hall brought it in from Hawaii and put it in his back yard, then civilization grew up around it, and the tree ended up in the middle of an asphalt parking lot. It never got watered, it never got fertilized, but it put out a crop year after year. We used to take nuts from that tree to plant in San Diego.”

Today most of the county’s growers sell their harvest to the 30-year-old co-op Gold Crown Macadamias, in Escondido. Here the nuts are hulled, dried, and either sold in the shell to retailers or aviaries or as shelled nuts to food processors. They take product from growers with one tree or with hundreds.

Tom Cooper is one of the growers who prefers the do-it-yourself approach. Aside from Cooper’s Nut House, his nursery and experimental work with varietals, and his consulting, he’s invented some processing machinery, maintains an active Web site (as do Gold Crown and the California Macadamia Society), and processes his own and others’ harvests. The production area is in the middle of the grove, behind Tom’s rustic-looking home.

No matter what variety you grow, it’s important to get the thick husk off as soon as possible to start the drying process. In a single-tree operation, it’s usually done by hand. Tom’s dehusking machine pops out the hard nut, discards the husk, and rolls the nuts down a ramp that drops out the nuts too small to be worth processing. Next the nuts are spread in cubbyholes in a drying cabinet — home-built hardware cloth shelves on a heavy wood frame.

“This is electrically operated, with a thermostatic controller. We go 90 degrees for the first 24 hours, then 100 for 24 hours, then 110 for the last two or three days. There’s good air circulation in here, and it’s nice and warm.” His solar dryer looks like an old water tank with fiberglass and collectors on the roof. It has a thermostat-controlled fan for heat and air circulation and holds the nuts at a perfect 110 degrees.

“And this is my new cracker. I’ve applied for a patent on it.” The sheet-metal device has a funnel-like feeder at the top, a square metal body, and an opening at the bottom to release the cracked nuts. “It has a vibrating feeder on it to keep the nuts from jamming. It feeds

them right into the cracker so you have a continuous flow. You put 50 pounds of nuts in there and put a bucket under the other end and just turn it on.” The machine makes a racket like gravel in a blender.

Tom moves to what looks like a double sink, with a low partition between them. “This is like a waterfall. You dump in the bucket of cracked shells and nuts. Then you fill one side with water, and this side half full, and turn the pump on. The pump sucks the water out of here, blows it into here under high pressure, the nuts float to the top and go over the waterfall, the shells are heavier and sink to the bottom. And any nuts that don’t have a good oil content will also sink with the shells. Then the good nuts have to be redried immediately for about two or three hours. Then they’re sorted by hand, looking for discolorations or any cosmetic defects.”

Around Tom’s processing area are bags and hampers and bins and piles of macs in various stages of drying and shelling. They look perfect, delicious, a mac-nut’s dream of heaven. Just stick your hands into a pile and eat all you’d like. “Well, they look good, but they’re not. They’re throw-outs. They’re dry, not enough oil in these. What looks like good, usable stuff is trash because it didn’t have enough oil in it to float in the water-sort process. If it doesn’t have enough oil, it’s not worth messing with, even though you’re throwing away some product. And these here, see this slight discoloration? They might not taste bad, but a buyer will look at one nut that has a little defect in it and think...uh-oh...and maybe think the whole lot is bad.

“They can make chicken feed, or mulch. And I compost a lot of the throw-outs. My seedlings grow in a mix of this compost and soil. And a guy in Rainbow who grows coffee trees in his nursery needs a real porous soil, so he uses the compost with a higher shell content.”

Macadamias are a wonder. The oil can be extracted for cosmetics, lotions, and soaps. Macadamia liqueur is popular in Hawaii and Central America. One manufacturer uses the ground shells to make pencils. “They can be used for salad - oil or for cooking,” says Tom, “but the first time you heat it, you burn the oil of macadamia essences out of it, and it stinks to high heaven. I’ve experimented with it. But once the essences are burned off, it makes a wonderful polyunsaturated, no-cholesterol oil for frying any food.”

Even with the long wait for a tree to produce, the high water requirements, the cottage-industry nature of the nut processing, and the potential for the market to bottom occasionally, mac growers seem devoted to their crops. “Macadamias arc a lot of work,” admits Jim Russell, “but they’re very pretty trees. The markets come and go, but I still think it’s worth growing. Nurseries still sell the trees, but of course, the natural enemy of the macadamia in California is housing. I’m not sure I could say it’s worth buying land to plant them, but if you’ve got the land, it’s certainly worth the time to grow them.”

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