The History of the Macadamia Nut
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The Macadamia, which looks similar to a Filbert Nut, originated in the rainforests of Queensland and New South Wales in eastern Australia. The aborigines enjoyed the Macadamia Nut long before the arrival of Westerners who only “discovered” Macadamias in 1828 when Alan Cunningham documented their existence but did not eat one. 

Originally, the Macadamia was only considered an ornamental tree. It took 30 years for the first documented consumption of the Macadamia to occur, when Walter Hill, Superintendent of the Brisbane City Botanical Gardens, tasked a boy with cracking some supposedly poisonous Macadamia Nuts so that they could be germinated. The boy ate some of the Macadamia Nuts and claimed that they were tasty. When the boy lived out the week, Hill ate some Macadamia Nuts himself and proclaimed them terrific. Walter Hill’s 1858, germinated Macadamia tree is still alive and producing Macadamia Nuts. Once the westerners learned that they could eat and enjoy Macadamia Nuts trade ensued. In the 1860’s King Jacky, aboriginal elder of the Logan River clan, regularly collected and traded the Macadamias with settlers in exchange for rum and tobacco.

Soon settlers (Tom Petrie in 1866) were planting their own private Macadamia Orchards in Australia and by 1881 William H. Purvis, manager of the Pacific Sugar Mill at Kukuihaele on the Big Island, had, at Kapulena near Waipi’o Valley, introduced the Macadamia to Hawaii, albeit not as a commercial crop, but as a windbreak for Sugar Cane. The first commercial orchard was planted in 1882 at Rous Mill in Australia.

It was not until the 1920’s that Macadamia Nut farming and production began to take off in Hawaii when Massachusetts born Ernst Van Tassel formed The Hawaiian Macadamia Nut Co. and leased 75 acres (300,000 m2) of government land on Round Top in Honolulu (Nut Ridge). He is credited with starting Hawaii’s first Macadamia Nut orchard, though seedling from a single parent tree did not consistently produce high quality Macadamia Nuts.

To address the problem, starting in 1922, the University of Hawaii began a 20 year long research project where they observed and measured some 60,000 trees for gene selection and grafting. Eventually nine productive strains were identified and developed that could produce a high quality nut without fail.

In 1931, before the grafting project is completed, Van Tassel also builds the first Macadamia Nut processing plant on Puhukaina Street in Kakaako to package his low sales volume Van’s Macadamia Nuts. Up until successful Macadamia grafting in 1937, allowed for consistently productive seedlings, Macadamia Nut farming was a fairly small scale enterprise.

In 1946, the first big Hawaiian Macadamia Plantation (which would ultimately become Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corporation) was planted near Kea'au on the Big Island of Hawaii. In 1953 Castle & Cooke Company marketed a brand of Macadamia Nuts in the U.S. under the name “Royal Hawaiian” and began to popularize Macadamia Nuts in the domestic market.  Mauna Loa’s crop first crop came to market in 1956 and added to the supply and market awareness. It took Mauna Loa 10 years to achieve their first crop because Macadamia Trees take 7 years to mature and produce (15 years to really hit their stride).  For a while in the 1940’s and 1950’s Hawaii was the world’s only source for large scale, commercially grown Macadamia Nuts.

In the 1960’s, clever marketers at both the growers and the airlines promoted Macadamia Nuts as an exotic snack on the new scheduled air service to Hawaii. The 3 oz. bags of Macadamia Nuts became part of the experience of Hawaii for thousands of tourists.

As the world became more interconnected and open to trade, the old Hawaiian sugar plantations began to wane as foreign competition ate into their sweet profits. By 1976, many of them were converted to more profitable Macadamia Nut production. Most of those Macadamia Trees are still producing nuts today.

 In the 1980’s, new mechanical nut cracking technology allowed the growers and processors to improve their yields of whole Macadamia Nut kernels while also improving their labor costs. This large industrial process of drying the Macadamia Nuts in silos and then cracking them in expensive cracking machines that use 900 pound titanium balls to provide the pressure to crack the shells is still the dominant means of shelling Macadamia Nuts today. Because of the costs involved, large processors had significant market power as the single cash buyer of Macadamia Nuts in Hawaii. 

More recently, smaller farmers have been turning to the patented Star M-15 Cracker invented by Bill Whaling of Waiohinu Hawaii which allows farmers to crack fresher nuts with a higher moisture content.

Bill Whaling himself sent us a link to this YouTube Video of his Star Cracker 16 in action.

Until 1997, when Hawaii was surpassed by Australia, the 50th state was the dominant Macadamia producer in the world.  In 2001, the Boo Yong Sia Estate planted 12,000 trees on 400 acres in Johore in Malaysia. Before long Malaysia may be a world leading Macadamia Nut producer.

In 2004, Hershey’s Chocolates bought the historic Mauna Loa brand.