by Chris Pippos

Many trips to China by a walnut expert at the University of Tasmania’s Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) could lead to the establishment of a nut research and development institute that forges even stronger links between the University and counterparts in China.

TIA’s Professor David McNeil will this month make his sixth trip to share his expertise with China’s researchers, walnut industry participants and high-country growers.

Professor McNeil will soon resume talks with a multi-billion-dollar Chinese corporation, which is looking to create larger nut orchards, to establish a nut institute in China. It will draw on his research and advice and set up student research exchanges between the University and the new Asian institute.

“It’s very exciting and interesting,” Professor McNeil said.

TIA’s expertise brings together all aspects of walnut growing, not just the science – something that has been developed over the past decade and gained impetus in 2009 after an international walnut symposium in Melbourne.

“The thing we have at TIA that is so important is the value chain approach, which is looking not just at the science of production of crops, but we take it all the way through to evaluating marketing and consumer attitudes and needs,” Professor McNeil said.

“We bring the whole lot together here and that’s what the Chinese like because they are very keen to develop their industry from its old-fashioned base to become a very modern one.”

“Most of the Chinese public and private investment in the walnut industry occurs as a way of getting economic development into their hill country, into the poorer regions, so they want to do it very commercially and we are good at achieving that.”

Australia has a relatively small walnut industry (4000 hectares) compared with China (two million hectares), the Tasmanian sector being dominated by Walnuts Australia, which has one of its three Australian orchards at Swansea. Most of the other walnuts grown in Tasmania are sold on the local market.

Chinese walnut trees are planted closer together because the nuts are all picked by hand. Professor McNeil, who specialises in new crop development, said the exchanges between Chinese growers and TIA, where topics discussed included orchard and nut quality, grafting, prices and disease threats, benefit both parties.

TIA is involved in three walnut specific projects locally, including a project with the Australian Walnut Industry Association to study how growing, storage, shipping and transport issues affect quality.

“The production system is pretty good in Australia now. The real issue is making sure that we get good prices for the product that’s produced,’’ he said.

Professor McNeil said new irrigation schemes offered scope to expand in Tasmania.

“You need to get the right micro-climates but it’s opening up big opportunities for grapes, walnuts and hazelnuts,” he said.

Key presenter

Professor McNeil and TIA colleague Dr Kathy Evans recently published Improved Management of Walnut Quality Factors under Grower Control, a book aimed at helping growers achieve maximum returns.

He presented keynote addresses at this year’s International Horticultural Congress in Brisbane and the UK’s Rural Entrepreneurship Symposium.

Explore opportunities in Agricultural Science from the University of Tasmania here.