Giving hazelnuts a good crack

Hazelnut Estate co-owner Roger Southby rejoices in a handful of hazelnuts in his Taieri Plains...
Hazelnut Estate co-owner Roger Southby rejoices in a handful of hazelnuts in his Taieri Plains orchard. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
When Roger and Janine Southby told their friends and family they had bought almost six hectares of hazelnut trees with "no orchard experience whatsoever", they thought the pair had gone a little bit nutty.

"The amount of nut jokes that came out were horrendous", Mr Southby said.

"A lot of our close friends and people that we trust and respect said awesome, good on you, give it a crack . . . it was probably people of the older generation were sort of going, oh it’s a bit risky . . .

"But you know, like I say, nothing ventured, nothing gained and we are really enjoying it."

The pair purchased the 25-year-old Taieri Plains orchard to start their business, Hazelnut Estate, about a month before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and now enjoy a regular presence at the Otago Farmers Market.

As well as 4700 hazelnut trees, the 5.8ha orchard came with a processing shed and commercial kitchen on site, which gave them total control over the whole process from "tree to table", Mr Southby said.

Their products included dry-roasted hazelnuts, hazelnut flour, a chocolate-hazelnut spread and a soon to be launched chocolate-covered hazelnut.

While the pair had each grown up on small farmlets, Mr Southby said they had "no orchard experience whatsoever."

His wife had come across the property listed in an online retail advertisement, and joked that it would be the family’s next business venture.

"When we first started we actually had no idea what we were doing, looking back.

"It was a real trial by error and I suppose you just get more efficient through experience."

Mr Southby said there were very few commercial hazelnut growers in the country.

A very small percentage of hazelnuts were grown domestically and a lot were imported from Italy or Turkey and could be up to six months old.

While most New Zealand growers were situated in North Canterbury, hazelnuts trees were "pretty hardy" and could withstand the extreme weather of the Taieri.

Most people’s perception of hazelnuts were what they bought from the supermarket, whereas the stock they produced on a weekly basis were what hazelnuts should taste like, he said.

It was satisfying to engage directly with customers at the point of sale, with the certainty of knowing exactly how their product was made.

The pair were now focused on turning the venture into full-time employment so they could spend two to three days minimum per week on the farm, rather than working their evenings and weekends.

Mr Southby said the lifestyle was awesome and he was pleased they had decided to take the "leap into the unknown".

"I’d suggest to most people, if you’ve got a vision and a dream go for it . . . but do your homework first."