1836 Almonds planted on Kangaroo Island

Postcard issued by the State Tourist Bureau and Intelligence Office, c.1910 State Library of SA

Almonds arrived in South Australia with the first ship to bring European settlers to the colony. The Duke of York arrived at Kangaroo Island on 27 July 1836 after a voyage of 154 days from London. A settlement was established at Kingscote on the island, where almond trees were planted. Later that year, Adelaide was settled and the nuts were soon flourishing on the plains around the new town.

Some sources suggest that these were Australia’s first almond trees. It’s not true. Although there’s no reference to almonds among the plants brought by the First Fleet from Rio de Janeiro and the Cape Colony, trees were being advertised for sale in Sydney as early as 1804. However, it was in South Australia that commercial production began. Initially, the trees were planted around fence lines but, by the early 1900s, there were orchards on the Adelaide Plains. By 1904, Australian production of almonds totalled 6,585 cwt (335 tonnes). Production today (2022-23) is 142,805 tonnes.

As Adelaide expanded, almond production moved to the western suburbs of Marion, Edwardstown and Brighton. These areas, too, were eventually subdivided for housing and, in the 1930s, the focus of the industry moved south to Willunga on the Fleurieu Peninsula. At that time, South Australia was producing around 70 per cent of the national crop of 1, 035,776 lb. (470 tonnes) while Australia was importing roughly the same quantity, largely from California. Willunga continues to host an almond blossom festival each year in late July.

In the 1960s and 1970s, production moved north to areas along the Murray River where irrigation schemes offered a reliable water supply. Today, the Sunraysia area around Mildura in northern Victoria produces more than two-thirds of Australia’s almonds. It’s a thirsty crop, but almost all Australian growers use drip irrigation systems and soil moisture monitoring technology to improve the sustainability of their enterprises.

While there are corporate farms, close to 75 per cent of almond orchards are 100 hectares or less and many are operated by second and third-generation farmers. Although we’re consuming more almonds than we used to, mainly because we’re more health-conscious, exports account for a high percentage of the crop. Between 2013 and 2022, exports increased from 52,795 tonnes to 115,049 tonnes. The main export markets are China, India and the EU.

The following article tells the story of a couple growing almonds in McLaren Vale, a stone’s throw from Willunga where the industry blossomed for decades. It first appeared in Issue 3 of Regional Food Australia, a short-lived magazine my husband, Fred Harden, and I produced in the early to mid-2000s.

Shaking the tree

Jude and Ian McBain love growing almonds because the crop is so forgiving. Unlike soft fruit, there’s less pressure to do things at exactly the right time.

Even with harvesting, instead of two days or two weeks, you have five or six weeks. And unlike olives, when the almonds are down and dry and in the shed, your problems are over. “You don’t have to get them to the press in 24 hours or you lose the oil” Jude explained. “They’re a wonderful crop to grow. Gives you time to do other things.”

For Jude, one of those other things was spending a day a week for four years helping with the Willunga Farmers’ Market. She was one of the foundation growers and the success of the McBains’ sea change enterprise has a lot to do with the market’s success. It allows small growers to make a reasonable income.

“We’re retailing,” Ian said. “We’ve cut out all the middle people. Previously, in this district, there were at least two to three middle people between the almond grower and the customer, because they all went to the co-op and then the co-op on-sold them to wholesalers, and then the wholesalers on-sold them to shops, so by the time they all had their cut the growers got…well…not very much.”

When the McBain’s bought their McLarenvale orchard in 1993, there were more than 70 almond growers in the district. Now few remain. Pushed out by the grape industry and water restrictions, many have moved north, to larger holdings in the Riverland. “They’re huge,” Jude said. “I mean, they do bird scaring with aeroplanes. We do bird scaring with a wooden spoon and a big silver bowl.”

Birds are clearly The Enemy, particularly white corellas that attack in flocks of several thousand. “If they land you’re in big trouble” Jude continued. “It’s not that they eat so much, it’s that they shred the trees. I actually went and did my gun licence. I never thought I would do such a thing, but I did. They just mustn’t land…and some of those bangs have to have a bit of lead attached to make that happen.”

Before they bought the orchard, Jude was the mail-order manager for Oxfam in Adelaide. Ian still commutes to his job as Associate Librarian at Flinders University. They had always agreed that if they moved to the country, they wouldn’t just buy a big garden; they’d buy land that was ‘doing something’. Ian’s grandfather had been an almond grower on the Gawler River north of Adelaide until the 1960s, so when they spotted the almond orchard it seemed a natural choice. It didn’t stop them making mistakes, however.

“Nobody sells you an orchard that’s in good condition” Ian admitted ruefully. “We battled for two years, then we decided, no these trees really weren’t going to come back. And we thought, right, we’re going to replant the whole thing.”

“We had to investigate what would grow in this soil, both in terms of varieties and rootlings” Jude recalled. “We had about 2/3 of the new trees grown to order, then the other 1/3 we bought the rootlings ourselves and planted them in big pots and then got a guy in to bud them to the varieties that we wanted. We’ve learned how to do it ourselves now.”

“But to get good almond trees on this scale takes about three years from the time you first think about it” Ian added. “You can’t just wander down to the orchard and get stock.”

The McBains grow three brown skin varieties of almonds, known as the Johnson, Somerton and Parkinson, all of which were developed in the district. A perfect Mediterranean climate, with the sea to moderate temperatures, makes growing conditions close to ideal. “We could possibly get a teeny bit colder in the winter, because they need about 100 hours below 7 degrees, you know, but not frosts” Jude said. They don’t spray much – just a copper spray at pink bud time and, if it’s a very wet spring, a manganese spray to clean up any fungus. By sharing equipment with neighbours, they keep operating costs down.

Almonds shaken from the trees

“It’s a shame, the almond industry going, isn’t it?” Jude mused. “Because we got to meet so many characters and they always shared their information. Like Ken Parkinson, for example, the day we were replanting, he turned up at 8 o’clock here, and I’m just about to put the first tree in the hole and he’s going ‘Nup’. And I’m going ‘What’s wrong with that, I’m just about to put the tree in the hole’. He’s going “No, where’s the prevailing wind? Which way are you putting the graft in, Jude? Like, face it toward the prevailing wind, so when the tree’s laden it’s not going to split.’ He said ‘I think I’d better stay and help for a bit’. So he stayed all day.”

We laughed, imagining the conversation around the breakfast table – something like “I’d better get over there before they stuff it up”.

Jude agreed:    “Yeah, I think there was a lot of that. Graham Giles drove up the road the first year I was out pruning and he actually got off his tractor and he went ‘No! No, you can’t do that!’”

“There were lots of almond-growing field days in those days,” Ian said. “And Judith went to all of them and looked at all the orchards she possibly could, picked the best one and copied that.”

“It was a big process but we’ve had a lot of fun doing it,” Jude responded. “And now it’s all coming to fruition, because the last 300 down the back this year, they’re six years old, and that’s when they really start kicking in. So now for 15 years, hopefully, they’ll grow bigger and go really well.”

Selling at the Farmers’ Market and through email orders, the McBains get through the crop in about 8 to 10 months, providing cash flow over most of the year. They supply some Sydney restaurateurs who have special requirements, like green almonds for pickling or Johnsons for patisserie. There’s even talk of having the Johnson almond nominated for the Slow Food movement’s Ark of Taste, as a unique Australian regional food.

“It took us a while but it’s actually a good income. Work for yourself, very nice conditions. So we’re very happy with that, we can’t complain.”

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