The decision to bulldoze their macadamia trees and replant an unfamiliar variety in the wake of natural disasters has paid off for Wondaree Macadamias.
Owned and run by Greg and Wendy O’Neill, Wondaree is a 66 hectare property at Tolga, with 12 hectares currently under 2700 trees.
Walking around the farm, it is hard comprehend the damage Cyclone Larry in 2006 and Cyclone Yasi in 2011 would have caused, and the huge effort that has gone in to rebuilding over the past seven years.
Before Cyclone Larry, Wondaree had close to 30ha of land under trees. The land they currently farm had a third of it replanted after the natural disasters.
Wondaree began in 1984 after Mr and Mrs O’Neill, who were at that time living in Julia Creek, purchased the property and planted the trees – with little knowledge of the industry.
Now it is a thriving operation producing their own branded product in Far North Queensland with everything from macadamia meal to chocolate coated maccas making an appearance on the product list.
Mr O’Neill said it was Cyclone Larry which was a “turning point” for the business.
“We had battled our way through AVG (Abnormal Vertical Growth) in the mid-90s, and when the trees grow vertical, they don’t crop,” he said.
“We had 4000 trees planted, yields were going backwards and prices were down.
“Then Larry came in 2006 and smashed the orchard and made the decision for us, so we dozed the lot.”
When replanting, Mr O’Neill said a luck accident saw them plant the A268 variety, which despite never being tried in the region, has performed very well.
Mr O’Neill wrapped up harvesting in mid-July, and said some areas of the farm were producing a very impressive five tonnes to the hectare.
Last fortnight saw 39.5 tonne harvested with about 10 per cent of the farm still left to go.
The decision to turn to direct marketing came in the early 90s, when the macadamia market crashed and Mr and Mrs O’Neill realised they could sell their own kernel directly for more money.
While they were initially cracking and sorting the nuts themselves, they soon realised it was too big of a job and the nuts are now processed at SunCoast Gold Macadamias at Gympie.
Mr O’Neill said since making the decision, they have not looked back.
“It has been good for us when nut and shell prices have been reasonably depressed,” he said.
“Now we can’t supply all the people who want our product.”
While the agribusiness is enjoyable, Mr O’Neill said in his heart, he was a farmer not a marketer, and left that job to Mrs O’Neill.
“To me there’s nothing like growing a great crop of macadamias,” he said.
“That’s my ultimate passion.”
While Mr and Mrs O’Neill have two children, a daughter who is a graphic designer in Sydney and a son who is a teacher in Brisbane, Mr O’Neill said he can’t see either of the kids wanting to come back to the family business.
“They spent too much time as kids picking up macadamias,” he laughed.