The Nutt Ranch

Keith Hair & Georgina Ponder with their Nutt Ranch hazelnut products

Owned by Keith Hair & Georgina Ponder The Nutt Ranch is a hazelnut orchard located in the Waihopai Valley in Marlborough, Keith and Georgina bring their harvested and processed nut treats to the Nelson Farmers Market each Wednesday.

I have walked past their stall many times without stopping so I thought it was time to rectify that, and I’m glad I did because the effort they put into growing, harvesting and processing this versatile nut shows in the finished product. They control everything from the tree to the table.

Once harvested they produce deliciously flavoured treats that consist only of roasted nuts and natural flavourings; they have plain roasted hazelnuts as well as two savoury (Marlborough Sea Salt and Hot ‘n’ Spicy) and two sweeter flavours (Apple and Cinnamon as well as Orange), then let’s not forget about the other products the produce – hazelnut flour, hazelnut butter and of course dog treats.

So how did this construction engineer (Keith) and Architect (Georgina) end up owning an eight hectare property with three hectares of vineyard and 1700 hazelnut trees?

Georgina told me they didn’t set out to buy a nut orchard, “the trees and nut business just happened to come with the property we bought in 2015, we loved the location and ambiance of the property, the long drive gives us lots of privacy.”

The trees range in age from 14 to 24 years planted in two blocks so were fully productive when they bought the property and they had to do something with the crop, “we knew absolutely nothing about hazelnuts but it has been fun learning.”

Keith Hair harvesting hazelnuts at the Nutt Ranch in Marlborough

Keith is in charge of the orchard and prunes about 350 of the 1700 trees each year, “not many people realise it but hazelnuts grow naturally as a bush so they need to be pruned to train them to grow as trees. “We have six or seven different varieties but the predominant variety is the whiteheart hazelnut” says Keith.

“We like this particular variety because they blanche well and you can rub the skins off quite easily, but you do need a range of varieties because they aren’t self-pollinating within the same variety, you need the different trees to have decent pollination.

“They are fairly time consuming to manage, it’s not just a matter of leaving them and picking the nuts up at the end of the year, we are constantly doing something. Pruning takes about 15 minutes per tree and then we need to pick everything up and clear it away so when the nuts fall to the ground they are easier to collect.”

The Hazelnut harvest starts around the end of March each year and lasts for between four and six weeks depending on the season, “our grapes were done in four hours” says Georgina “so it is a drawn out process and is actually not that easy”.

They spend about three months pruning, leaving leaves to mulch over the summer for about three months before cleaning up ready for harvest.

Before the nuts start falling from the trees Keith and Georgina need to make sure the ground under the trees has been raked to pick up remaining mulch and the grass mowed, then after the leaves and nuts fall they leaf-blow before they go along with the harvester and “basically hoover them off the ground.”

Once harvested the nuts are stored in onion bags, then after the nuts have been washed, dried in the sun and rubbish removed then put pack into bags as clean nuts in shell. Georgina says “in the shell they stay fresh much longer so we can process them as we need them.”

When it comes to processing it all happens in the registered kitchen they have at home and they only process enough at any one time to meet the immediate need, “when we have a market Keith puts them through the cracking machine and separates the nuts and shells and then Georgina sorts the nuts by hand, we have a use for every nut or piece of nut.

A selection of freshly roasted and seasoned hazelnuts from The Nutt ranch

“Today’s product was cracked, sorted, roasted and flavoured or turned into butter yesterday, it is all made in very small batches so little is more than a week or two old.”

When it comes to the flavourings Keith and Georgina use they are natural too, the orange flavoured nuts are produced using orange zest and freshly squeezed orange juice.

Another popular product is their cold-pressed oil that they press themselves, after the oil has been extracted Keith turns the leftover solids into hazelnut flour that is either sold or used in the dog biscuits they also make.

Dog biscuit treats made by the Nutt Ranch

These dog biscuits are made from their flour, mixed with natural hazelnut butter that is made from raw nuts and blended with vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices that have all been researched for animal nutritional benefits. “We called the dog biscuits Two Nutty Dogs” says Georgina, “we have two nutty dogs that will crack hazelnuts and eat the nut, they just love them” and based on how much our dogs love these treats I can only assume they are very tasty too.

According to Keith all of the food used in the dog biscuits is suitable for human consumption “and we have had people buy them for themselves.”

Back to proper human food, the butter made by The Nutt Ranch is made from dry-roasted nuts and they will make natural, unroasted nut butter to order. It is stoneground into a butter with a pinch of Marlborough sea salt and comes in either smooth or crunchy.

“We developed the nut butter initially only as a plain hazelnut product but now have different flavours, Keith worked out how to make a crunchy butter before I made a hazelnut and chocolate spread. We blend the hazelnut butter with dark chocolate, there’s no sugar added so it is a semi-sweet dark hazelnut spread with the sweetness coming from the chocolate and it’s dairy free too.”

Using smooth butter as a base they developed flavours like cinnamon and vanilla using Koefaga vanilla from Motueka that’s made using vanilla pods from Niue. There’s also a sweet ginger flavour made using crystalized ginger and their honey flavour is made using local natural honey from Garden Bees in Marlborough, “he has hives around Marlborough and some are next to our property” says Georgina.

Keith told me they want to make the business work so they can enjoy the Marlborough lifestyle too, “we will always be hand-crafting from what we harvest, we won’t have a big stainless steel factory making tonnes of product, we just love working in the orchard and vineyard and seeing people enjoy the energy we put into making our products.”

Whenever I’m at the Farmers Market in Nelson or go to the Sunday Farmers Market in Marlborough you can guarantee this is one stall I won’t just walk past again.

Published in the Nelson Mail 10.04.19

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