Life on a Big Island Macadamia Farm: The pickers start early – just after 7:00am. Morning dew clings to the trees planted in their neat rows and the air is still chilly from the night and the all-consuming jungle darkness. Streaks of sunlight filter through the branches and start to burn off the damp, getting noticeably stronger and brighter over the course of just half an hour, until all the sparkling beads of water are gone – replaced by rising clouds of warm, wet mist.
Up and down the rows, farm workers spread out with their plastic buckets, white canvas bags, spools of twine and jugs of drinking water in search of trees with large caches of nuts scattered beneath them: easy picking. Then they crouch down and go to work, their quick hands darting across the ground, scooping up nuts and giving them a half-second’s consideration before either dropping them into the bucket or tossing them aside into the grass.
Soon the swath of fenced-in orchard fills with the sound of a macadamia nut farm: the satisfying clatter of hard green orbs the size of golfballs hitting the bottoms of plastic buckets one at a time. This plays over the ambient sounds of the jungle; sweet songs of resident birds, twigs snapping underfoot of creeping mongoose and pigs, and the sound of a cool onshore breeze rustling the palm fronds, blowing in from the ocean just a few miles downhill.
The pickers are there because the trees drop their crop when fully ripe. This makes the macadamia industry on Big Island (and much farther afield places, too) reliant on a great deal of sometimes-tedious manual labor to bring its nuts to market. At the same time, it means that Hawaii’s macadamias are something truly handmade, where every buttery, savory morsel enjoyed by visitors at the free sample tables found inside its nut factories started with a similar searching finger, a half-second examination and a clatter into a plastic bucket.
Technological improvements like using mechanical harvesters and deploying systems of nets beneath the trees have not been shown to be cost-effective, which is why the process is still painstaking and inarguably low-tech compared to the farming of other types of tree nuts. Speaking from hands-on experience, though, the work isn’t very strenuous; it takes quite a bit of flexibility to spend hours in a constant loop of crouching and standing, and requires some dexterity to sort through the scattering of green husks on the ground to find bucket-worthy specimens.
There are hundreds of individual, mainly family-run macadamia farms on Big Island, and they are worked by armies of pickers ranging from business partners to longtime employees to casual day laborers to work-traders. For most of them, they’re paid based on the total weight of what they’ve picked at the end of the day, not by the hour, so quick hands and a rigorous pace is the winning formula. This means that the pickers take very few breaks, set on meeting their target harvest weight as quickly as they can and then spend the rest of the day relaxing.
End Of The Morning Shift, Arrival Of The Sheep Flock
The ambient air at the farm begins to feel like a sauna around 10:00am on hot summer days with little cloud cover. Many pickers will slow down slightly as the morning wears on, content on doing the most aggressive picking in the coolest part of the morning and then dialing it back as it gets closer and closer to mid-day. They’ve filled and emptied their plastic buckets dozens of times by now, pouring them into propped-open white canvas bags with a rattle, creating yet another signature mac nut farm sound. At this point there are roughly ten bags bursting with nuts and tied off at their openings reading to be picked up en-masse, many grouped together in stands leaning against tree trunks. The farm uses color-coded string to seal the bags, correlating to each individual picker so it’s always clear whose bag is whose when it comes time for the scales.
An orchard worker on a four-wheeler rumbles down the muddy lanes in between the rows, stopping to heave the 50-pound canvas bags onto the front and rear racks of his machine before motoring off to the other edge of the plot to pick up more. One batch of pickers start to head up to the processing barn around noon, opting to skip the hottest part of the day and get paid out now for their five-hour morning shift. A die-hard group, though, powers through the heat and can still be found crouched down along the rows of trees well after 2:00pm, wearing broad-brimmed straw hats and t-shirts tied around their heads like turbans.
Around this time is when the resident flock of sheep make their appearance. From some hidden side-paddock, they are released into the orchard and make their way across the property lazily browsing the weeds growing up around the base of the macadamia trees. They seem wholly uninterested in the nuts themselves, and don’t seem to get spooked when an enterprising picker squats down right beside the flock. The farm does not spray herbicides or pesticides in the orchard, instead relying on the instinctual weed control provided by the sheep, as well as the natural fertilizers they leave behind for the trees in the form of tiny brown pellets.
In the lexicon of farming nerds, this is what is known as “integrated agriculture” – a system where there are very few external inputs, and where the waste products of the orchard (weeds and grasses) are utilized by the sheep whose waste products (manure) is in-turn utilized by the trees. In short, it is the “circle of life” playing out on a macadamia nut orchard inhabiting a swatch of rain-swept rocky lavafield outside the former town of Kapoho along Big Island’s Kalapana Coast. It’s just one of the approximately 700 different macadamia farms across the state that together produce thousands of tons of wet in-shell nuts every year – worth around $50 million annually during a bumper crop. It’s an industry that employs more than 3,000 people throughout Hawaii, making it one of the most lucrative and sought-after agricultural goods in league with coffee, pineapples, sugar and fresh flowers.
Hit The Scales, “Pau Hana”, And Start Up The Husker
When the afternoon sun finally gets too intense to bear, the full-time pickers will holler for the four-wheeler to finally come pick up their bags. They collect their gear and head up to the barn, which houses the scales, nut drying racks, sorting stations and the farm’s massive husking machine. The bags of just-picked raw nuts are poured into this bulky, unwieldy contraption the size of a bathtub suspended in the air with chains, which shreds away the green, spongey outer husk and leaves the exceptionally hard, dark brown waxy shells with nut inside.
The bags are weighed, the values are scribbled into a beat-up looking notebook, and the pickers are paid. They bid farewell to the processing crew about to fire up the husker, and make their way back down the driveway to the orchard’s entrance with smiles all around and a newfound spring in their step. For them it’s time for “pau hana” – a Hawaiian term referring to the time after a day’s work is done meant for relaxing, socializing and spending time with family.
A conveyor belt-like hopper brings the bulk nuts up to the husker, which rattles and shakes and makes a terrible racket of screeches, howls and whines as it spits out the perfectly clean marble-sized brown orbs. The machine is so ear-piercing that the processing staff must wear hearing protection, and their communication is largely hand gestures and nods while it’s in operation. The husked nuts tumble down a ramp into the sorting area, where assembly line workers conduct quality control and pick out old, broken and spoiled specimens, tossing the rejects down wooden chutes into waiting wheelbarrows. Those that passed the quality check make their way down into a long tube-shaped hopper made from lumber and chicken wire to dry. In the middle of a good harvest season, this sprawling, elevated cage will be overflowing with thousands of pounds of nuts, ready to be sold in-shell.
The ground around the processing facility is absolutely littered. Cast-off nuts can be found in every nook and cranny along the assembly line, and they rain down from the catwalk with a quiet pattering when a worker makes their way from the inspection station to the drying hopper. Finally the last bag of raw macadamias is poured into the elevator, run through the husker and trickles past the sorting station towards the veritable mountain of drying nuts. The workers shut down the machine, stow their earphones and get ready for their own “pau hana”, and at that point the only ones still working on the farm are the sheep.