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Macadamias--a tough nut challenges cashews

Look out, cashews.

The undisputed king of fancy nuts is facing a little rivalry these days from a relatively new nut entry from the Pacific--the macadamia nut.

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Famed horticulturist Luther Burbank once called the squat, buttery-textured macadamia ''the perfect nut.'' Enthusiasts find it difficult to refer to the nut without using superlatives like ''the Rolls Royce of nuts,'' ''the pristine nut, '' ''the creme de la creme.'' Macadamia growers are determined to give the cashew a run for its reputation.

''We view cashews as the closest competitive nut,'' says Paul Bennett, president of Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corporation, which bills itself as the largest producer and marketer of macadamia nuts in the world. ''Right now, Hawaii produces about 8 million pounds of shelled macadamia nuts, which is about 10 percent of the 80 million to 100 million pounds of cashews which are consumed annually in the United States.''

''I'd say that trying to get 25 percent of the cashew market,'' he continues, ''would be a modest goal.''

Although the macadamia is about as familiar to the average American as avocados were 10 years ago, it is an exotic taste treat that most visitors to Hawaii have sampled at least once. Until now, in fact, the infant industry has relied primarily on ''taste-and-talk'' advertising by tourists.

But today the little nut that was introduced to Hawaii from Australia 100 years ago as an ornamental tree is becoming big business here. Although the macadamias' record $24.2 million crop represented only 4.4 percent of all crops grown here in 1980, it still was the No. 3 agricultural product--right behind the long-established crops of sugar and pineapple.

There have been macadamia nut plantings in Australia, California, Rhodesia, Malawi, Kenya, South Africa, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Brazil, but these are mostly in experimental stages. Only in Hawaii have macadamia nuts achieved major success as a commercial crop.

Nearly all of the state's 13,400 acres of macadamia nut trees are located here on the big island of Hawaii. This acreage accounts for more than 90 percent of world macadamia production. And it is an acreage total that grows as the nuts increase in promise as a crop alternative to Hawaii's troubled sugar and pineapple industries.

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Just last month, for example, C. Brewer & Co. Ltd., one of Hawaii's ''big five'' companies and the owner of Mauna Loa Macadamia Nuts, announced that over the coming decade it would convert 8,000 acres of sugar cane into macadamia nuts--a figure that more than doubles Mauna Loa's current total of 6,500 acres planted with some 300,000 trees.

Macadamia growing, however, is not for everyone, particularly not for the individual who wants to make a profit by planting in a backyard. Macadamia plantations are a capital-intensive business. Trees do not begin bearing until they are seven-years-old, and growers do not reach a break-even point until the trees are another four years older.

Add to that the fact that production costs for macadamia nuts are probably the highest of any nut around. Unlike almonds and walnuts, which are harvested once a year over a short period of time, macadamia trees flower in waves and require five to six harvests over a seven-month period.

Harvesting is made more difficult--and expensive--by the fact that nuts cannot be picked off the trees, because they are not ripe until they fall to the ground. Processing a macadamia nut is difficult as well: its tough shell makes it one of the hardest nuts to crack, requiring 300 pounds-per-square-inch of pressure to break the shell.

''They are expensive,'' Mauna Loa's Bennett admits. ''(Marketing) is a matter of getting consumers to understand that they get what they pay for.''

To that end, Mauna Loa has launched an advertising campaign that teases consumers with the message, ''Enjoy the taste of paradise. Even if you don't live in Hawaii.'' In addition, the company has added regional sales managers on the mainland, doubled its number of food brokers, expanded its sample line to include availability at check-out counters in stores, and hired a sales manager to go after the potentially lucrative food service and industrial market.

Look out, cashews.

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