Acotanc: Manjimup--the Heart of the Walnut Industry in WA

Manjimup--the Heart of the Walnut Industry in WA

Author: Graham Fellows
Organization: Warren Valley Walnuts
PO Box 217
Manjimup WA 6258
Phone: +61 8-97731346 Fax: +61 8-97731346
Mobile 0412-215 675
E-mail: [email protected]

The history of the development of the walnut industry in WA, the decline of the industry and its future resurgence.

The walnut industry in WA is very old and fragmented. Basically, at the moment, it is a cottage industry, for want of a better description. It exists as small plantings left over from older times, some as little as one or two trees, mainly for family use, or remnants of bigger plantations which are producers for small local markets. There are a couple of exceptions. Probably the biggest established commercial nut business in WA is Fonti's, down at Manjimup. We chose the title, Manjimup, the heart of the walnut industry because it is right in the middle of the climatic zone required for walnuts. It is also, coincidentally, where I live and work. I am very fortunate to live and work on a property which was a part of the original Muir estate.

We are very fortunate, and I think it is apt, that we should be presenting our miniac on the first day of this conference, because it is well-written that the walnut is probably the oldest tree crop known to man. We have evidence dating back eight thousand years. It is believed that they originated in Persia; there is some dispute about this as some of the Asian countries believe they had the first ones. But it is generally accepted that Old Persia was the origin of the walnuts. They spread through Europe and the Romans took them to England in 43 AD. From there they spread, mainly by the English explorers, and so a common term has been established: English walnut. You will have this over and over. I will speak of English walnuts and French walnuts. It is simply, because as the history unfolds, the first walnuts brought to WA were called by the people who brought them, the English variety and the French variety. Of course, all these nuts are known correctly as Juglans regia, the sweet ones we all know and love to eat, not to be confused with Californian walnuts, the black walnuts that we use for rootstocks and timber.

As the early settlers came to Australia, the good land with the water frontage and good water around the Swan River Colony around Fremantle was taken up, so other settlements sprung up. One of these was Albany, when Major Lockyear established a settlement in 1826. Quite a few of the new settlers who landed in Fremantle decided to sail on when they learned that the good land had been taken up. One of these people was George McCartney Shane and his wife, Grace, who came in 1831. They established whaling at Shane's beach, sealing, but more importantly, they established farming in the area. Obviously, George and Grace couldn't handle all these three industries on their own, so they decided they would bring more people out. They recruited people within their own families in Scotland. At this time, the whole of the southwestern district was simply a vast, forested area, inhabited only by Aborigines.

George managed to persuade some of his wife's relatives to come out and take up the farming practices. These people were experienced farmers from Scotland, who were suffering with the decline of farming in Scotland, so they were looking for new opportunities. The first one to arrive was George's nephew, Andrew Muir, in 1844. He arrived with his wife, Elizabeth, and seven of their eight children, 5 boys and 2 girls. They came to work for Uncle George, and they worked for him for two years on his property just outside Albany. Being the family that they were, they weren't going to work for someone else for too long. They took up a lease on land at Ongerup. From there they decided to take up land in their own right, and in 1851 they took up a property called Forest Hill, 18 miles this side of Mt Barker. It is actually now the Pardalup Prison Farm.

Andrew's family, especially the boys, spread north and west of Fernhill. One of his sons, Thomas Muir, was a great explorer. He was also a great farmer and a botanist. He had a keen interest in exploring and finding new species. There is a rush named after him. He was the first white man to ever see Lake Muir, the area of Perup and the area of Deeside. This is why we can categorically say, this is the start of the walnut industry in this district. At that time, it was just open, forested areas of towering marri and jarrah trees. Not a forest like we know it now. I talked intimately with the family, and I read the original diaries of these men. The forest as we know it now is totally overgrown. They describe that they could ride through the forest at full gallop on horseback. There was no understory. It was like we understand parkland, cleared land now. It was also interesting to note, when Thomas first settled Deeside, he dug six wells before he found one that he could drink. The first five were just too salty. So, our salinity problem has been here for a long time. I'm not saying that we inherited it totally: obviously it has been added to. But that jarrah, redgum, ironstone country in the southwest was very badly affected with salt when the first white man trod on it.

Thomas was a bachelor at this time. He decided to take up the land known as Deeside, which is where I now live. He built a rush hut for a start and lived there. Later, in 1858, he married Charlotte. (tape ends and is turned over)

...through Cyclone Albie that came through the southwest, probably the only really destructive cyclone. It cut the tree off and they thought the tree would die, but the resistance of this tree was greater than Cyclone Albie. All this growth above here is since Cyclone Albie. It came back with a strange shape.

Those trees are about 104 years old. Because the Muirs were so successful at growing all this produce, not only at Deeside, but on all the other farms, Lake Muir, Fernslope, Perup, Forest Hill, they needed an outlet. Albany was forging ahead and so a family company was formed, A. Muir and Sons in 1866, as an outlet for all this produce. The Muirs were very practical people. They transported all their goods by bullock cart. The reason they used bullocks rather than horses to transport their goods... bear in mind it takes over two weeks by cart to get the produce from Deeside to Albany. If you are on the road for two weeks with your produce, and you are using horses, you can carry only half the amount of produce because you have to carry food for the horses. Bullocks, you don't carry any feed for; they graze at night and in the rest periods, and that is why they used the bullock teams.

Thomas built the family homestead at Deeside. It didn't look quite like that in those days. In 1866 ticket-of-work men were engaged to build the current Deeside homestead. They moved out of the slab building to raise their family in a brick house. All the bricks were made on site, all the timber was cut on site. It's amazing...even the last generation, not the kids we have got today, but the previous generation...this area here looks like what we know as a nice verandah. That's the kid's bedrooms. There was only one bedroom in this homestead and that was for Thomas and Charlotte. The children were all brought up here...and we get a temperature range of -8 oC to 46 oC. In this photo you can see a barometer which Andrew brought out from Scotland. That barometer is still there. Every morning when Thomas came to tap that barometer, the children knew it was time to get up. They had no awnings, they had no protection, other than their clothing and their bedding. Andy Muir of the last generation who is alive today, still remembers those cold mornings. They were a tough lot.

The current owner, Andy Muir, still operates this farm producing cattle, sheep. The orchard crops have all but gone, other than for own use. There are still orange trees more than 100 years old, pear trees. The walnut plantation is still there. Those three trees in the slide are still producing after 140 years. In the 1940s, Andy planted a bigger plantation. Andy is 84, has just had a hip replacement. He planted more walnut trees using the seed from the original trees. He recalls, when I was talking to him in my interview for this paper, that in the 1940s, when he was establishing his major orchard, he would take the nuts from the original orchard into town in ten-pound sugar bags, to sell to townsfolk, because by this time Manjimup had been established. He would sell them for 2 shillings a pound, or a pound a bag. If we work on the farm worker's wage of the day at 7/6 per day, in the old money, around $126 award rate today, it meant that Andrew was getting something like $32 per kilo for his nuts in 1940. Not a bad return. They were that popular that he had to ration who he sold to. One of the local businessmen would take every bag he could get, and he would sell them on in Perth at an even higher price. So walnuts have been quite a valuable crop for a long time. Those prices even held during the Depression years when the farm wage dropped from 7/6 per day to 10 shillings a week plus keep. These were men working hard, ringbarking and clearing land.

The nuts from these original trees spread far and wide throughout the district. When we look around and talk to other families in the district, the walnut trees, by and large, are seedlings from the original trees.

I mentioned earlier Fonti's nut farm. This is another piece of pioneering history in the walnut story. Fonti's nut farm is probably now the biggest commercially producing nut farm in WA. It was started in 1904 when two brothers, Archimede and Gemano Fontanini came to Australia in search of a better life. Between them they had 12/6 in their pockets, but they had a will to make good. They got a job in the timbermill at Greenbushes, where they worked until 1907. At this time there was no Bridgetown or Manjimup. In 1907 there was a general strike throughout the timber industry which was prolonged. This was the impetus a lot of people needed in the southwest to go and take up land. So, Archie and Jack decided they would take up 460 acres fifty miles away in a place which is now known as Manjimup. Manjimup was actually established around 1920. This was forest land of karri. These two men didn't have a posse of sons like the Muirs; they set about to ringbark and clear the land. To finance their operation, they would actually ringbark and clear their land on the weekends, and during the week they would ringbark other people's land to produce finance to get their own operation up and running.

It took them three years to clear the first major clearing. During this time they grew vegetables, which they took to Bridgetown 30 miles away. These guys used a horse and dray. The produce used to be on the dray and Jack and Archie would walk alongside, 30 miles to Bridgetown with their vegetables. The first 10 acres were cleared by 1910, when they planted apples and pears. This area is now where the nut planting is at Fonti's.

There were a lot of problems in the early years with apples and pears, with apple scab. As a tree failed, Jack's son, Neil, would replace it with a nut tree. With their Italian background, from Tuscany where nuts were commonplace, they missed the nuts. They knew more about growing nuts than apples and pears. They grew nuts in a small way for their own use. But Jack's son, Neil, saw a great potential and a great future in nuts as an industry; he had that foresight. That is why they are where they are now, as the biggest established nut farm in WA. So, as an apple tree failed Jack would plant a walnut or a chestnut. He also grew a certain amount of hazelnuts.

They grew these nuts and they were sold in the Perth markets. But Neil was quite an astute character, and he came up with an idea around 1960: Why do I take my nuts 300 km, all the way to Perth? The market is in Perth; that is where bulk of the European people are who buy the nuts. He came up with the idea of the market coming to him. He came up with the idea of 'Nut Time at Fonti's.' Coachloads and families would come down to Fonti's in the autumn, and they would literally pick up the nuts off the floor and pay for the privilege to take them home. Even today, when the average price for they type of nuts that are being produced is around $5 to $5.50, that's cleaned, graded, dried, packaged, taken to market or farm gate. Fonti's charged people $6 per kilo to do the work and take them home. Quite an innovative marketing practice. Unfortunately, with an aging population, and the fact that the younger generation of mainly European descent that are keen on consuming these nuts, now want things prepackaged and delivered to their door. They are not even prepared to go to the shop and get them if they can avoid it. They are not really interested in pick-your-own. So there is a decline in the European clientele at Fonti's, but there is a bright side. With the upsurge of Asian people in WA, and Asians are great consumers of nuts, the numbers are not changing at Fonti's each year. It is the ethnic mix that is changing. So, all of their nuts are still sold in that way.

Neil handed the property over to Tony and Shirley. This is Tony's son, Sean, inspecting one of the newer-type lateral-bearing nuts that they have there, either Howard or Chandler. This is the type of tree they have there now.

Archie Fontanini received an MBE in 1970 for services to the community. Anybody who goes down to Manjimup will know Fonti's Pool, the great recreation site and caravan park. Archie lived to be 102 years old. This hard work, all this fruit and all those nuts, there has got to be something in it. Tony and Shirley Fontanini now operate Fonti's. They are continually expanding, at the forefront of a modern nut industry in WA.

There are a few other reasonably large plantings, one at Pemberton that belongs to the Shuttleworths. By and large, the walnut industry in WA is fragmented. Fonti's would produce from their 600 walnut trees approximately 5 tonnes of salable nuts per year. Their 1500 chestnut trees produce about 15 tonnes per year, and about 100 hazelnuts produce about 250 kg per year. This is why it was difficult for me to come up here and give you a talk on the walnut industry in WA, because, really, it doesn't exist. It existed in the early days, it dwindled out because of the financial problems with the walnut industry. Walnut trees, as we knew them then, were mainly seedling trees. They took seven to ten years to bear, and their crops were biannual or unpredictable. With the advent of the newer Californian varieties, the lateral-bearing nuts, the walnut industry was revitalised, because, all of a sudden, we have gone from a crop which takes a long time to grow and is basically unreliable, to a tree which is smaller, more compact, producing large quantities of quality nuts at an early age. This makes walnut farming now a profitable, low-maintenance industry.

I, personally, because of where I live, was looking for a use for my 400 acre property. Everything that I looked at in a small farming enterprise was either over-done or unprofitable. I knew in the back of my mind that if, as I walk around, we will find in the hedgerows and in the paddocks, we will find walnuts growing quite freely and well, but when I looked at the economics of walnut growing, as I knew it, I could not justify the cost of establishing a walnut plantation for myself. About six years ago, I saw a colour supplement in the Weekly Times, the Victorian country newspaper. There was a picture of this man here, Harold Adem. It was an editorial on the new, Californian lateral-bearing trees. I read it and digested it, and Harold knows I said to him, I didn't believe the figures. I passed it up to a very good friend of mine and he thought it sounded like government-inflated propaganda, because at that point we linked Harold with the Department of Agriculture.

But, unperturbed, I contacted Harold and was invited over there. When I got over there and saw what they were doing with the Walnut Industry Association, really, what the editorial wrote about on Harold's work was underestimated. So I came back full of glee from that visit. The first thing I did when I got off the plane was to go to Perth Central Markets. I told a couple of notable people there what I had seen. One of them, who is probably the principle player in the Perth Metropolitan Market, wanted me to go with him there and then and sit down and sign contracts for the trees that we hadn't even got. Because, there was a market for walnuts. That year Patricia Shuttleworth received $9.50 per kilo farm gate from this same buyer for her first-grade walnuts, and they were all presold. There was a market for good-quality fresh walnuts. So, I, full of enthusiasm, said, "Right. We have got to plant walnuts. The first thing we need to do is get the walnut trees." And that is where it stopped. Walnuts are notoriously, I now know, probably the hardest tree crop to propagate. I won't go into the details; Harold will cover this.

Even the biggest tree crop nursery in WA, Aliyah (?) Nurseries...Lou Bazani said to me, "No, we don't want to be involved. In fact, you can do us a favour: we, under the (?) banner are required to propagate walnuts. We have a paddock there full of rootstocks waiting to be grafted. Why don't you take them to your place, why don't you be the walnut industry?" "Great, I'll do that." So my wife and I, we took it on. I suppose everyone somewhere in their lives has to have something that keeps them poor. We have it now: we have Warren Valley Walnuts. Not because there is no money to be made in walnuts; there is great potential. Believe me. You people are here because you are interested in the walnut industry. There is money to be earned. But, it comes down to the old saying, "You get nowt for nowt."

The hardest part of the walnut industry in WA is getting the trees. Even in Australia, not just WA, I get phone calls on a regular basis, can I supply X amount of trees? The last one I got was for 5000 trees. I have a man in WA who came to me with a cheque for $130,000 and a truck. He said, "I want enough trees to plant 30 acres, and I want to put 550 to the acre, and I want them now. I have my truck and my money." That was two years ago. He still doesn't have his trees. He is still sitting there waiting for them. The problem is a Catch 22 situation: there isn't the nurseries prepared to put in the time and the effort to produce walnut trees when they can grow other things which are easier and they can see an instant cash flow. So, if the trees are not being produced, we haven't got the trees to take the budwood or the scion material to produce more trees. That is the major problem. Also, throughout Australia, there is a shortage of rootstock seed, the black walnut we use for this. Because walnut seed is a prohibited import into Australia without extreme treatment, it is very difficult to get that supply from elsewhere. We in WA are very lucky. These early pioneers who were in the walnut industry left us a legacy in the form of black walnuts, Juglans hindsii and Juglans nigra.

In the early 1920s, a bush school was set up just outside Pemberton. Somebody associated with this school planted Juglans nigra, all around the school as shade trees. We now harvest those trees and send that harvest all over Australia. We send trees produced from that harvest all over Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, NSW. The fine-leafed one, Juglans hindsii, which is the preferred rootstock from California. In 1950, the South Australia government had a walnut research project, and they got caught up in the scare of blackline disease in walnuts, which can put you at risk if you use black walnut rootstock. So they decided to get rid of their black walnut trees, and they would go back to Juglans regia as rootstock. An enterprising family in Manjimup decided they would get hold of some of these trees, not the big ones, but small, seedling trees, and bring them to Manjimup because they saw a future. And, again, we have the opportunity to go and harvest those trees. So, we have a plentiful supply of rootstock material, or rootstock seed. In fact, we supply the eastern states.

Our problem now is that we need the budwood. With Western Australia's quarantine requirements, it is very difficult for us to get budwood in. There is a shortage anyway, but fortunately, Harold does help us. He gets a certain amount across each year. So, we have this situation in which only time and dedication will fix the walnut industry. We need to grow the trees to produce the trees. And that is the only hold-up that we have now. We currently have two other major projects for two prominent people in WA. They epitomize the walnut industry, I believe. These people can see the potential in this industry, and they want to forge ahead. When David and another gentleman named Tom came to me and said, "We want to plant walnuts." I said, "Look, we're not ready." They said, "We don't care. We still want to plant walnuts. We see great potential for the industry. We want to do it now." So, we are working together with them, and we are getting plantings into the ground. Now, this is typical of the enthusiasm in the walnut industry in WA. It mirrors what is happening in the eastern states. There is a great future in the walnut industry in WA. We just need patience and dedication.

Without being too big-headed, we are Warren Valley Walnuts. We are based in Manjimup, the heart of the walnut industry, and we believe there is a future. We believe the future for the walnut industry is extremely bright. We have a quality product. We have a consumer market both here and overseas, crying out for that product. You may think, well, the Europeans and the Californians, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, they will fill the market over there. They cannot fill that market. The Chinese probably produce the most walnuts in the world, but they consume the most walnuts in the world, so they export very little. The Californians are a close second, but of course, they are in a different time zone. So we have a great niche, an opportunity, because, those horrible things you buy as walnuts in the supermarkets, and you eat, and they are all right, until you have tried a fresh one. We are about the fresh walnut. We can export our nuts into the market when the northern hemisphere doesn't have those fresh walnuts. Likewise, we have our own market here which will take many, many years to fill anyway.

We have a consumer market crying out for our product. We have a dedicated team in the form of the Australian Walnut Industry Association based in Victoria. We have government backing and funding through RIRDC. We have enthusiastic growers and investors. So, I think we have all the hallmarks of a really good industry. A lot of people say to me, "We have seen it all before. We have seen emus come and go, we have seen ostriches come and go." The walnut industry is a little bit different. While we were going about establishing this industry and establishing the trees, we have an association which is establishing marketing, quality control and organisation of the industry at the same time. That will be done long before the industry is full-blown. That is what I see as the key to our success. We will be organised, we will have the markets, we will have the quality product. An example of this is the latest publication from the Australian Walnuts Industry Association. The title says it all: Quality Management Guide. Right from the word Go we have set standards of quality, if you wish to be part of the Australian Walnut Association. This book is available.