ROSS Burling grew up on a wheat farm just down the road from the Stahmann family’s sprawling pecan orchard, Trawalla.
Growing pecans fascinated Ross because it was so very different to Moree’s usual wheat and cotton crops.
So when he was 16 Ross started an apprenticeship with the Stahmanns, learning the pecan business from a family who first grew pecans in New Mexico in 1932.
Ross could never have imagined it would be the start of a relationship that’s endured 27 years.
“I did my apprenticeship on the farm and was lucky to be sponsored to go to university,” explains Ross, who is now CEO of Stahmann Farms.
“I had always wanted to work on the Stahmann farm because it was so different. There were these big trees and I was intrigued.”
Ross completed a degree in engineering and worked off farm in other sectors before being approached by Stahmann Farms’ new owners, Matthew Durack and Jeff Dodd, to return and take on part ownership in the processing business.
While pecans remain important to the business they are no longer the main game in a product mix that includes macadamias, pepitas, pine nuts and sunflower seeds.
“It’s been difficult to expand the pecan business because up until 2013 we hadn’t expanded our holdings in Moree and we hadn’t planted any new trees,” explains Ross.
“In 2013 we started planting out small trees again and went from having 40-year-old trees to having to learn how to grow trees from a nursery.
“In the past three years we’ve planted 28,000 trees and we hope to plant 20,000 a year for the next four years.”
You’ll find the company’s nuts packed into a variety of brands, including chainstore private label brands and Stahmann’s own brands – Ducks Nuts and Riverside, the brand for nuts grown, processed and packed in Australia.
Ross says the company is focused on expanding growth by selling direct to end consumers in Asia via ecommerce sites.
“We are focused on adding value to the business for our staff,” he explains.
“At the moment we grow about 2000 tonne of pecans and sell them bulk which supports 107 jobs.
“If we put the nuts into 300g packs we can add another 14 jobs to the organisation. Every job we creates adds to the bottom line and adds security to our business.”
He says the business held up well through the GFC and has enjoyed increased sales due to the national focus on nuts as a healthy snack food.
“About 30 per cent of our pecans are sold domestically, about 40 per cent into Asia, 10 per cent into Europe and 20 per cent back to the US, the home of the pecan.”
Ross says even all the years later he still has a passion and excitement for the nut business.
“We’ve got a fantastic and dynamic bunch of employees and a lot of them have been here for up to 40 years. We also have a very good product. Pecans are good for you – if you eat a handful a day it’s good for cholesterol and helps with the heart. I enjoy growing something that’s useful fort he world and for humanity. Not too many people can get up each day and say they do that.”
PADDOCK TO PLATE
Trees: The pecan orchard at Trawalla was established in the 1960s and features 80,000 mature trees. They’re planted in 8-10m of well-drained alluvial soil. We’ve been planting new trees. Some of them may be ready to harvest by year five, others by year seven. The breeding of new varieties happens in the US.
Weather: For pecans you want really hot growing seasons. IT also can’t be too wet because then you get fungal diseases. Moree is the ideal growing spot because it’s cold winters and nice hot dry summers.
Buds: The trees are dormant now but by mid September we’ll see the buds break and the trees will start to wake up. We start to see green matter and by mid October we can see flowering and pollination.
Nuts: By the second week of November we will start to see small nutlets. That’s the exciting part, just to see this tiny thing start as a pebble and grow to full size by April. Each tree will produce 20 to 30kg of nuts and there’s about 60 nuts per kilo.
Harvest: We harvest in April using a mechanical harvester, which shakes the nuts off the tree. They are then swept into rows and picked up by machine.
Grading: We do a basic grade on farm to remove any extraneous matter. They are then dried on farm going from 20 per cent moisture straight off the tree down to seven per cent.
We use gas-fired dryers and it takes about seven days per 30tonne of nuts.
Processing: Each day we have a load of nuts ready to ship to Toowoomba where we have a our processing factory. We start to crack the nuts straight away. Any overflow is put into cold storage where they can stay for up to 12 months.
Cracking: The nuts are cracked and shelled by machine. They’re then sized and graded and sorted into colour using an electronic colour and laser-sorting machine. The premium nuts are lighter in colour and the darker nuts mean they’ve oxidized in some way.
Whole crop: Every single thing that comes off the farm is sold – even the shell. We sell the shell for stock feed and it makes fantastic garden mulch. It’s also mixed with macadamia shell for furnace fuel for electricity generation.
Price: The kernels are sold for between $15/kg and $3/kg depending on their grade.
Nut pool: We typically buy 4 to 5000-tonnes of pecans from other growers, to supplement what we grow ourselves. We operate a pool, like a wheat or rice pool, where people deliver the product at an agreed price. We market the nuts and hopefully there’s a bit more money to spread around at the end.