Before the introduction of Big Island Macadamia Nuts, people had been growing food crops in Hawaii since the time of the first Polynesian settlers, who brought with them seeds and saplings of staples like taro and breadfruit to use in building their new civilization. These “canoe plants” formed the basis of ancient Hawaiian agriculture for a millennia, mindfully propagated generation after generation into great abundance, found growing in massive coastal plantations and in endless plots of flooded, terraced marshland.
The first settlers also brought sugarcane, bananas, kukui nuts (also known as candlenuts), ginger and gourds. Some of these crops – the most prominent example being sugar – would become huge commercial industries much later in the islands’ history, usually as a result of European opportunism. Beginning in the mid-19th Century, many foreign peoples and plants began to arrive in the islands, and what had for countless generations been a largely sustainable, insular and staple-based patchwork of small feudal farms was thrust into a new era of large-scale commercial agriculture, with sprawling, seemingly unending plantations of cash crops like sugarcane and pineapple.
Agronomists were tripping over themselves trying to figure out which of the world’s crops could be commercially viable in this highly specific Hawaii climate, which led to a great deal of experimentation, speculation and failed test plots. Into this rapidly changing landscape came William Purvis, a young manager at the Pacific Sugar Mill along Big Island’s Hamakua Coast close to the picturesque Waipio Valley. Purvis was an investor and plant collector, and had just returned back above the equator from Australia where he first encountered macadamia nut trees.
The macadamia is native to Australia, specifically the regions of New South Wales and Queensland, and has been an important source of “bush food” for Aboriginal peoples since prehistory, who called the nuts “bauple”, “gyndl”, “jindilli”, and “boombera”. The genus name “Macadamia” was coined by German-Australian botanist Ferdinand von Mueller after his friend John Macadam – a Scottish philosopher and doctor. Mueller in his own right was a much-lauded scientist and the secretary of the Philosophical Institute of Australia.
Upon first encountering the trees in the outback, the young globe-trotting Englishman Purvis first regarded macadamias as little more than a curiosity, eventually finding a use for the trees as wind breaks along the borders of sugarcane fields at the plantation he managed. The trees are exceptionally long-lived – some living more than 100 years – and some local legends tell that those first few trees Purvis planted close to the sugar mill grounds are still alive today. Over the years, the nuts became very popular with Big Island locals, and word spread across the archipelago of these savory, buttery delights growing on ancient, prolific trees that are very well-suited to Hawaii’s climate.
There was immense business potential in this new, long-overlooked crop, and the first commercial processing facility for macadamia nuts opened its doors in 1934 in Honolulu. This was the genesis of the Hawaiian Macadamia Nut Co., the brainchild of Ernest Van Tassel, who several years prior had established Hawaii’s first macadamia seed farm – a 75-acre hilltop plantation on Oahu known as “Nutridge”. For years, tins of Van’s Macadamia Nuts were a common sight in Honolulu as well as in the outer islands.
Today, more than 20,000 acres of land in Hawaii are dedicated to this thriving industry, with an annual production value of roughly $175 million. Most of the large-scale farms are found on Big Island, which makes macadamia nuts an essential cash crop propping up much of the island’s economy. From growing macadamia saplings to hand harvesting the nuts to trucking the bags to market to processing them into finished products, this industry employs more than 3,000 people statewide and offers a crucial source of reliable income on an island with few economic opportunities for many locals. Hawaii’s mac nut crop is grown on more than 700 different farms, and many of these are smallholder, family-run orchards that have been worked for many generations.
A Resilient Industry, Challenged By Pests And Climate Change
Although macadamia nut trees were brought to Hawaii simply as an accessory to sugarcane production, the years since have seen them largely switch places. Since the days of William Purvis, Hawaii has seen a steady, healthy growth of its nut industry and a near-complete decline of its sugar plantations. The trees that were once planted along property borders to slow gusts of wind have become cash crops in their own right, inhabiting tens of thousands of acres of farmland and making their way into everything from cookies to shortbreads, kettle corn to skin care products, cooking oils to nut milks.
But the macadamia’s meteoric rise in Hawaii hasn’t been without challenges, too. The invasive insect plaguing Australia’s nut orchards known as the Macadamia Felted Coccid has made it to the islands, and today can be found in all of Big Island’s macadamia growing regions. Controlling the pests mainly consists of diligently pruning the trees to give local predators easy access. In some cases, pesticides are used to stunt their proliferation. The bugs don’t impact the quality of the nuts themselves, but rather leach nutrients from the trees and slowly diminish their output over time.
Another check to Big Island’s booming mac nut industry is climate change, which has brought much wetter weather to its windward side. In 2018, the weather station at Hilo International Airport recorded its third highest rainfall year on record. This can spell disaster for macadamia farmers, where long stretches of cloudy damp can cause the flowers on the trees to rot, preventing the nuts from setting and leaving the tree bare come harvest time. This would suggest that plantations in dryer Big Island micro-climates, like those in the districts of Ka’u and South Kona, will fare better than their East Hawaii counterparts in the face of changing rain patterns.
An Impressive Nutritional Profile, and A Hard Nut To Crack
A single macadamia tree can produce upwards of 60 pounds of nuts per year. Once they’ve been husked, shelled and roasted, the little yellow orbs provide an excellent source of monounsaturated fatty acids (popularly known as “good fat”), as well as flavonoids and tocopherols (vitamin E) – both potent antioxidants which some research suggests helps prevent cancer and heart disease. The nuts are naturally cholesterol-free and are very low in sodium when left “unsalted”.
Just a single ounce of macadamias – roughly a dozen individual nuts – contain two grams of protein, making it a great source of nutrition for health food-types and vegans. They also contain vitamin A and several essential B vitamins like thiamine, riboflavin and niacin, as well as iron. Macadamia nut oil has been shown to contain Omega-3s, which are known to reduce the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure. A University of Hawaii School of Medicine study in 2000 even reported that eating macadamias can have a positive effect on blood cholesterol levels. All of this means that the nuts have a nutritional profile that exceeds olive oil and most other tree nuts.
Macadamia tree saplings will grow for several years before starting to produce. At ten to twelve years old, the trees will hit full production and keep fruiting consistently for many years. They drop their nuts when fully ripe, so virtually all harvesting involves picking them up from the ground by hand. And although getting to this point may sound long and tedious, it isn’t even the hardest part of the process; macadamia shells are incredibly tough, as anyone who has tried to open one by hand can attest to. Conventional nutcrackers, pliers, vice grips, hammers, rocks – all barely put a dent in their waxy, dark-brown shells. It takes around 300 pounds per square inch of pressure to crack them, giving the macadamia the title of “hardest of all nuts”, and similar physical properties to aluminum.
Where To Learn More About Mac Nuts On The Big Island
For visitors to Hawaii Island who want to catch a few glimpses of its storied macadamia nut industry in action, there are two large processing centers outside the main commercial centers of Hilo and Kona. They are open to the public, give out free samples, offer self-guided tours of their factories, and feature well-stocked gift shops and showrooms with a wide variety of sweet and savory products on display.
Hilo-Side: Outside the town of Keaau, along the main highway leading into the city of Hilo, is the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Visitor Center. The center is open daily from 9:00am to 4:00pm, and their website can be found at www.maunaloa.com/pages/visitorcenter
Kona-Side: Outside the town of Waimea, along the Kohala Coast in the hills above the small port town of Kawaihae (KAH-VIE-HIGH) is the Hamakua Macadamia Nut Company’s factory and showroom, affectionately known as the “Nut House”. It is open daily from 9:00am to 4:30pm, with a website found at www.hawnnut.com/