Going a bit nutty in Cromwell: Otto and his Central Otago Walnuts
Would you start a business if you knew it could take fifteen years to sell your first product and even longer before you could cover your annual expenses? On paper, the answer inevitably is no. However, when you meet Otto Muller, you begin to understand that his Central Otago walnut orchard was founded on innovative engineering spirit and a lifelong dream to live on a farm not the numbers in a ledger.
The journey to producing a commercially viable crop has had all the drama of a soap opera crossed with a game of snakes and ladders. The Muller’s planted their first trees on their 80-hectare block on Pearson Road, near Bannockburn in 1986, however, Otto's journey to owning an orchard started decades before that.
The Muller’s chose walnuts because of the flexible crop management requirements, the wood from mature trees is highly prized and the nuts are high in nutritional value. Otto has a background in mechanical engineering and thermodynamics. He grew up in Switzerland not far from Zurich, and studied agriculture and engineering. His innovative approach to food processing and manufacturing was realised early when he proved himself to be a bit of a “Willy Wonka” when it came to creating magical machines that achieved seemingly impossible engineering feats. He can remember turning worthless “misty wine” into high-quality vinegar through a refrigeration and evaporation process.
Between Switzerland and arriving in New Zealand, he and his first wife had a ten-year detour to India, where he was part of a multinational senior management team. He put his fluency in six languages to good use managing a multicultural workforce and oversaw operations ranging from coffee, cotton and vitamin production through to industrial steel foundries.
Happenstance saw a close friend of Otto’s move to New Zealand in the early 1980’s and send him a copy of the New Zealand Journal of Agriculture and Auckland Weekly. The thought of realising his childhood dream of living on a farm outweighed the perks and pay packet associated with his expatriate Indian lifestyle and the family soon moved to New Zealand.
He spent time working as an engineering consultant and engineering sales rep to determine the best farming location and whilst demonstrating frost fighting with water at Webb’s orchard found and purchased the land in Cromwell. He established a pig farm - many of Cromwell’s fruit growers first met Otto when he came to source wind-blown fruit to feed his pigs. He recalls taking his bacon to market and having the abattoir complain the pigs were inebriated - he had accidently fed them fermented apricots that had been stored in wine barrels! The farm was leased when he later moved to Dunedin for the children's education and his wife's health needs.
Otto’s regional claim to fame is that he was an integral part of the team that designed the heating and ventilation system in the Dunedin Hospital and he had a lot to do with a number of large-scale irrigation projects throughout Otago and Canterbury.
After 7 years he shifted back to Cromwell to start the orchard. Otto knew that Cromwell’s climate was ideal for growing walnuts and there was the Kawarau River and an underground channel providing a bountiful water source. They originally planted a research orchard of 250 trees that had been sourced from North America and Europe. However, in 1992, the wheel of fortune turned and they went “down the snake” as their trees and machinery shed were destroyed by fire. They were able to salvage some scion wood from their original trees and began the painfully slow process of replanting their orchard.
The growing of walnut trees is really only half the story. Over the years, Otto put his innovative spirit into engineering new machines to optimise walnut harvesting. Traditionally it has taken three machines to shake the trees, sweep and harvest the walnuts. Otto’s machine puts out “wings” that look like an inverted umbrella under a walnut tree and then vibrates the tree to release the nuts. The walnuts are the funnelled into collection bins. The machine was especially invaluable when Otto broke nearly all the small bones in one of his hands out the back of his workshop and Valda had to bring in an entire harvest on her own!
Otto also gets a little like a twinkly-eyed walnut Santa Clause when he talks about his shelling machine. Otto travelled to France to discover that the best machines could only process 9kg of nuts per hour. Otto decided that this was “absolutely not good enough,” and created a machine that could not only process 300 kg’s of walnuts an hour, it could also work wonders with almonds, and pecans.
Today there are over 1,300 trees and they are still planting. Otto reckons this is quite an achievement for someone in their 90’s. This just goes to show that for Otto it is all about the lifestyle and their walnut orchard patience leaves the cheese makers in the dust when it comes to “good things take time!” If you would like to sample some of the Muller’s Central Otago walnuts you can purchase them at Dunedin’s weekly farmers market or order online at Nznut1@xtra.co.nz.