Lake Alfred macadamia farmer and owner of the Florida Macadamia Growers Cooperative, Glenn Reynolds’ first taste of farming was spicy. As a kid, he would grow hot peppers to eat. It wouldn’t be until years later, that a failing citrus grove and parrot food would lead Reynolds to set out on a nearly 15-year journey to crack the secret to growing macadamia nuts in Florida.
Reynolds was born in Wilmington, North Carolina. His family moved when he was three, just south of Washington D.C. where he spent 43 years. He moved to Florida for a job opportunity in 2002.
When he and his wife bought the Lake Alfred property, about six of its seven and a half acres were citrus. In 2005, when citrus greening hit, Reynolds, an avid researcher, read up on the disease and how it had ravaged other parts of the world from Asia to Brazil – and now it was in Florida. He began to look toward the future of his farm.
Reynolds raised and bred parrots for a long time. A common diet staple for larger parrots are macadamia nuts. “I was standing out in the driveway one day and I had a macadamia nut in my hand that I’d bought to feed my parrots and I looked at my wife and said, ‘I wonder if these would grow here.’”
Everyone told him no, they wouldn’t grow – especially not in Central Florida. Many farmers have tried and failed to grow the nut. He began looking into the commonality of their failures. He found cases dating back into the mid-50s where people had tried to grow them here with a few successful years and then they would die. “The common thread that I found was everybody was buying macadamia trees that were developed in other parts of the world and trying to grow them here. That was the one thing I said I was not going to do. I started developing my own varieties specifically for Central Florida,” said Reynolds.
His research into growing the plant began with the survival of the fittest he said. He bought a thousand fresh nuts to germinate. “They don’t grow true to the parent tree. I basically ended up with somewhere around a thousand different varieties of macadamia nuts,” he said. Some of the trees were lost to freeze, others didn’t survive due to unfavorable soil or weather conditions. Reynolds slowly weeded out varieties unsuitable to grow in the sunshine state and narrowed in on varieties that could thrive.
Finding those varieties from seed takes years. “I have some trees out there that are pushing 14 years old that still have never produced a nut,” he said. He found that though some trees grow well and survive freezes, it doesn’t mean they will produce viable nuts. Through his experimentation with the trees he found that though they all seem to start blooming in December, nuts become mature at different times. Most nuts drop to the ground once they have matured, but not all nuts do. Some in his field began dropping as early as the middle of August with others as late as February the following year.
This staggered dropping creates an efficiency issue during harvesting. To solve this, Reynolds set out a plot of trees that were seed grown. He took notes and observed. From his driveway going east, he is applying everything he learned with the other plot. He does this by developing his own methods of cloning good trees. He set up the new plot based on when they will drop nuts.
Reynolds noted that his macadamia trees had not been fertilized for two years. Once a good portion of his citrus was gone and he pulled up what was left of the grove, he stopped fertilizing to get a baseline. “All of this was getting the same treatment as the citrus, so how do I know what the macadamia’s need?” he said.
Presently, Reynolds has about 300 trees in the ground with room for another 400. His best yield was pre-Hurricane Irma. He had about 60 trees producing nuts with only about ten or twelve of them mature. That year he came close to two tons of macadamia nuts. He projected in the future if all 700 trees are planted and when they are mature, he thinks his seven-and-a-half-acre farm could yield 15 tons a year. Not only did Irma obliterate his harvest that year, he said, “I lost what I really thought was ‘the tree.’ I hadn’t cloned it yet so I had no viable tissue.” He hustled to try and keep it alive, even trying to find help with micropropagation, but to no avail – ‘the tree’ was lost. Reynolds says that he learns from his failures. He even keeps a bowl of nuts from that tree in his bedroom as a reminder to never miss an opportunity like that again.
Does he want to make money on his macadamias? Certainly, but that’s not the ultimate goal. “I also looked it as not just creating something here for me but trying to create a new agricultural industry in Florida,” said Reynolds. “To me, the important thing is to find trees that grow here. Making money from the beginning can’t be that motivation.”
This is the first time Reynolds has opened up to any media about his operation. He felt that after almost 15 years into it, the timing was right, and he wouldn’t be projecting false hope into the agriculture community. “It can be done,” he said. “It will work, it can be sold, there is a market here.”
Reynolds gave us a tour of the property. We discussed everything from the trouble with stink bugs to training tree trunks, phytophthora also known as “Root Rot” or “Foot Rot,” to a tree that had split down the middle which Reynolds cleverly ran bolts through. You can even see the scar where the split healed, saving the tree. Everything is a learning process he said. “This is all [information] that I can pass on to other growers.”
We admired his perennial peanut ground cover with his sweet rescue pup, Jenny by our side as he explained, “We’re trying to also make our entire property either Florida-friendly plants or Florida native plants.” The environmentally conscious farmer said his property is about 75% solar powered. “We try to be as green as possible,” he continued, “I was one of the first citrus farmers to go to fertigation where you’re fertilizing through the water so you’re not spreading it all over the place and it’s not running off.”
“We have to protect our environment,” said Reynolds. “Preserving this piece of property and preserving this lake behind us because it gives us so much peacefulness, it’s worth the extra time and expense.”
A multitude of plants fascinate the Lake Alfred farmer. On his property, Reynolds grows olives, bananas, peaches, avocados, mangoes, sugar cane, turmeric, figs, lavender, ginger and an entire neat little jungle of other plants. “I love growing things. It’s all so very interesting to me,” he said.
A Tough Nut to Crack … and Sort
“I’m driven by challenges,” said Reynolds. “To me, it was one of the biggest challenges, particularly when the agricultural community was saying you can’t do it, people have tried to do it here before.”
He takes pride not only in his macadamia nuts but, based on industry standards says, “I think Florida can grow far superior macadamia nuts to anywhere in the country.”
His trees produce some nuts that are bigger than a half-dollar. Size isn’t the only thing to do with quality, he says. He explained the industry term “crack out,” saying that if you were to take a pound of nuts that had already been dried and cracked out of their shell and then weighed the amount of kernel compared to the whole pound, that number is your “crack out.” The minimum industry standard is about 28% crack out and 35% is considered to be exceptional. “I’ve got some trees out here that are giving me about 50%,” he said.
The farmer says he is trying to expedite processing his harvest as well as build a co-op to benefit small farmers who can’t or may not want to shell out (pun intended) the money to buy the equipment to process them.
As soon as nuts are harvested, they must be husked, dried, cracked and sorted – each step requiring either time-consuming labor or expensive equipment. His husker/ cracker machine, which he imported from New Zealand, cost almost $5K, an investment many small farmers can’t make. Once the nut is cracked, he’s left with more shell than nut and this is where the labor and time are, in separating the kernels from the shell. Currently, Reynolds uses 5-gallon buckets with different-sized holes in the bottom that he shakes the nuts through. There are electronic sorters available, but he said they are an investment of about a half million dollars.
“I’m designing and building a mechanical sorter that I’m hoping will get me 80% there,” he said. The farmer has already built a dryer complete with electronic controls to dry the nuts. With a background in mechanics and fabrication, Reynolds opted to build a sorter himself. If his sorter is a success, he has discussed eventually manufacturing them.
Ideally, Reynolds says he would be the one to front the equipment cost to process nuts for smaller operations. He added, “I hope within a couple of years to be selling some of my good varieties of trees.”
Where to Find Them
In addition to his work growing macadamias, Reynolds sells his products online at flmgc.com and the Grove Roots Moonlight Market each month. Because he is a cottage industry operation, anything that has been processed such as his roasted and salted nuts or macadamia nut cookies can be purchased online, but cannot be shipped – they must be hand to hand. Unprocessed nuts are able to be shipped, however.
The Grove Roots Moonlight Market is the only local market at which you’ll find his Lake Alfred macadamia nuts. “I love the people at Grove Roots. They’re great people,” he said. A big hit at the market are his macadamia nut cookies, a recipe he’s perfected over ten years. “I can sell 400 cookies in a matter of minutes on the right night,” he said.
A new addition to his market offerings will be large bags of shells. He uses them for compost around trees, for mixing with sand to grow seedlings, and even as an aggregate for his driveway. His favorite use for them is in the smoker. “It’s fantastic for smoking meats,” he said. “There is a purpose for every part of the tree.”
Florida Macadamia Growers Cooperative