Behind the Farm Gate| Producers nut out success

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EIGHTEEN years ago Ian and Dianne Dennis decided to "have a crack" at walnut farming, a big leap of faith for a school teacher and industrial chemist.

But as with most things, what looked good on paper didn't necessarily translate well into effective farming practice.

"We had this property and we were running a few cattle on it," Mr Dennis said.

"We found leasing it out to a neighbour was barely paying rates so we thought, `what could we do with it'?

"We did a search on all the different sorts of agricultural pursuits you could take on, and walnuts were fairly new to the market and looked promising."

The couple planted 1200 trees over their four-hectare property at Howth, just outside Penguin, and sat back ready to reap the rewards in five years time.

Unfortunately after five years, the trees were still small and not producing anywhere near the yield predicted.

Mr Dennis said this was largely due to non vigorous root stock and lower growth rates in the cooler Tasmania climate compared to mainland Australia and other global producers, coupled with the joint venture partner decision to vigorously prune the trees to encourage growth, which instead effectively temporarily bonsaied the trees.

"We selected walnuts because when the prospectus came out we thought well if it is half as good as the prospectus it should be pretty good," Mr Dennis said.

"Of course it never works out like that."

Not ready to give up, the Dennis' could see the potential in their high-quality product so they made the decision to wait until year 11, after they retired, and then reinvestigate value adding options for their new independent business, Walnuts @ Howth.

"The best nut is one that comes straight out of the shell, so what we wanted to do was crack them fresh, and only crack what we could sell," Mr Dennis said.

"So we did some marketing surveys locally and looked at what we could do with value adding, starting off with the nuts in shell as a base product.

"Then we did the pristine and the confectionary grade nuts followed by the oil and the pickles."

Without any retail experience, the couple took their time, producing each product in stages to really give themselves the chance to see whether something would work.

Walnuts @ Howth is now three years old and has four main products, the base product, nuts in shell, hand cracked pristine halves that are top quality and used as garnishes or in salads; the confectionery grade, still top quality but better suited to cooking with; walnut oil; and pickled walnuts.

The couple do everything themselves and only retail direct to the consumer, predominantly at harvest markets.

Mr Dennis said it was important to have that one-on-one contact with the customers.

"We decided we would do farmers markets and get people to come to us," Mr Dennis said.

"We retail everything ourselves. "That relationship with the customer is very important to us."

Now the Dennis' are in the process of acquiring organic certification as another point of difference.

It's a long and rigorous process.

"We have now done all the desk top stuff and are just waiting for the site audit," Mr Dennis said."So far we don't have anything that doesn't comply."

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