Agri Australis, the 2,600 hectare experimental hazelnut farm at Sandigo, planted its millionth tree on Wednesday.
Agri Australis General Manager Claudio Cavallini and Member for Farrer Sussan Ley were the ones to turn the last sod, as it were.
The farm was established in 2014, when the first hazelnut trees were planted. Two properties, Dellapool and Arrambee, were put together to create the farm, and it currently employs around 50 people.
Agris Australis is a subsidiary of the Ferrero company, which also grows hazelnuts in South America and South Africa. However, rather than just growing for themselves, the company are keen to explore every possibility for hazelnut production in the region – not only for themselves, but for the next generation of growers.
“We are a company working around the world. We are present in South America, we are present in Europe. Whatever they use, we can try to experiment here, because we want to have the best farm management in the best way we can,” Mr Cavallini explained.
“A few more years for us and we can give the right advice, the right knowledge, on how hazelnuts can be developed and cultivated in this area. We are a big organisation, so we try to collect as much information as we can to advise the local growers here.
“We probably need a few more years to make sure the plants are growing, we have evidence across the farm; when it ticks all the boxes we will be able to advise growers in the area.”
Already, according to Mr Cavallini, the company are already getting involved with the industry bodies in Australia.
“We have gotten involved with the Hazelnut Association; we have been going every year to the convention. They are starting to approach us and ask about us, so we are offering information about trees.”
According to Development Co-ordinator Paul Geurtsen, the farm is looking at many different ways to make hazelnuts work in the area.
“We’ll always be planting; there’s always going to be trials. We’ll never stop. We’ll pull trees out, we’ll plant a different variety; we’ll try different things. Maybe a block doesn’t like a particular plant, so we’ll change it,” Mr Geurtsen explained.
“As a demonstration trial farm, we’ll always be doing something. There’s new technology, there’s new varieties, and we’re currently experimenting on soil types. To give the locals information, we need to try stuff.
“There’s always something happening, and that’s good for the community, because we’re always going to have a higher requirement for labour than a normal farm would,” Mr Geurtsen said.
So far the farm is using Giffoni hazelnuts, considered the benchmark for quality, as well other varieties for pollination such as San Giovanni and Tonda Romana.
“We also have another ten experimental varieties; we’re looking at a variety that’s been in a trail block that the Department of Ag has; it’s been doing very well for pollen.” Because of the farm’s size and proximity to the river it contains a number of soil types, including the sandy soil typical of the Narrandera Shire.
As well as experimenting with soil types, the farm is also experimenting with water. A lot of the trees are watered through a drip-irrigation system, but other trees are watered through a sprinkler system with custom-designed sprinklers, specially made for hazelnut trees.
Additionally, the farm is experimenting with different brands of water pumps, to calculate the benefits of each brand and to obtain their own hard data on water cleanliness and wastage.
Already, the potential for hazelnuts as a viable and economically sound crop seems a firm option at hand.
“A hazelnut tree is actually a tree; it’s a bush or a shrub,” Mr Geurtsen said.
“Unlike an almond or a walnut tree, which might only last for 20 years, it just regenerates from the ground up. A new stem is like a new fresh tree.”
Mr Geurtsen said that trees could keep fruiting for decades if need be; additionally, hazelnuts are surprisingly labour-effective.
“Once it’s going, all your other labours can be automated. Apart from your pruning, it’s kept to a minimum.”