Almonds: Cracking the big time

Photo: supplied

Photo: supplied

The humble little almond’s meteoric rise in our dynamic foodie era has, in a nutshell, turned it into big business. Having been around forever, it has emerged from the back corner of the pantry, reimagined and reinvigorated in hundreds of new guises.

Powered by versatility, nutrition and popularity, the almond today is quite the Instagram star — a low-kilojoule super food, a menu and pantry staple that is universally praised for sustainability and wholesomeness, and recommended for general health benefits and for people who have dietary restrictions.

Twenty-five years ago, when current Almond Board of Australia chairman Neale Bennett scrapped his dried-fruit business and planted almond trees on 17 hectares in north-west Victoria’s Sunraysia region, just 500 tonnes of Aussie almonds were produced, all for the domestic market. A decade ago, production had risen to 26,000 tonnes.

Now, Australia grows more than 80,000 tonnes a year, 60 per cent of which goes overseas to 46 countries, led by India. California supplies 80 per cent of the world’s almonds, and Australia is second, with 7.7 per cent.

And the harvest trajectory is predicted to get steeper, so that current orchard expansion soon will double this year’s production to hit $1 billion in export revenue.

In February this year, a UK private-equity fund bought a 400-hectare almond orchard in the Sunraysia district for an undisclosed sum, and Australian investment bank Macquarie Group has sold more than 1000 hectares of Sunraysia’s almond orchards on behalf of investors; among the buyers, who paid $115 million for the deal was a Canadian teachers’ pension fund.

“It’s really taken us from a cottage industry,” Bennett says. “The health benefits have pushed a lot of the growth, as people have become more conscious of what we put in our bodies, looking for a more natural product, less processing and an alternative source of protein.”

Almonds are still available in the supermarket and bulk store, flaked, slivered and whole, but now they’re also the ingredient in hundreds of everyday foods and product lines: breakfast granolas and lactose-free coffee; gluten-free almond-meal cakes and treats; protein-rich snacks at the gym and school canteen; in savoury recipes for pastas, salads and Asian and Middle Eastern foods; as a coating for fried foods; and adding nuttiness to desserts from the bottom crust to the decoration.

Multinational companies see nuttin' but opportunity in the Australian almond industry. Photo: supplied

Multinational companies see nuttin’ but opportunity in the Australian almond industry. Photo: supplied

Aussies scoffed a record average of one kilogram a person last year, the world’s sixth-highest consumption. Almond-orchard areas continue to expand — in 2016 by 16 per cent to 10 million trees over 36,000 hectares, mostly in the Murray River’s Sunraysia and Riverland regions. Most are boutique but, increasingly, multinational companies are investing in vast new agribusinesses.

At the same time, new areas of demand open up, such as in aromatherapy and the cosmetics industry.

Researchers are developing uses for the by-products as a stock-food supplement, in rubber production, as a fertiliser and after torrefaction (super heating) as a stiffening agent in the manufacture of plastics for disposable cutlery, plant pots and wood-polymer material in decks and fencing.

Adding to its planet-friendly reputation, most Australian orchards are irrigated with drip systems managed by soil-moisture-monitoring technology. “Farming has become a science and this is an efficient industry,” Bennett says.

“We’re now seeing that people are interested in everything about the product. They’re reading packaging before they buy; where a product comes from, even its carbon footprint.”

Sustainability is a buzz word at cafes such as Prospect Espresso in Camberwell, which makes its own almond milk daily. Almond-milk orders have overtaken soy milk, but dairy still dominates.

Increasingly, people are even making their own almond milk.

This is because it is cost effective, has no additives and a better flavour than the packaged variety.

The main reason for its production are the widely perceived health benefits of almond milk. Prospect Espresso, for one, use it frequently in smoothies, coffee, with oats, and for baking cakes and muffins.

The Source Bulk Foods — Australia wide and with eight stores in Melbourne — sells dozens of sweet and savoury almond products, from trail mixes to muesli to Byron Bay chocolate-covered nuts, and you can churn out your own almond butter on the spot.

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