29 Jun 2020
New Fellow Tim Armitage has “successfully retired from full-time engineering – at my third attempt”. In addition to assessing Chartered Members and Chartered Professional Engineers, he’s an assessor and moderator for Connexis.
Tim led the teams that developed a training system for road maintenance workers, and that introduced infrastructure management (through the Road Asset Maintenance Management System) throughout New Zealand. This led to work for the United Nations and The World Bank in Papua New Guinea and Nepal, for state authorities and councils in Australia and for projects in the Philippines, Bougainville, Samoa and Fiji. He and wife Cherry have a 20-acre walnut farm with more than 300 walnut trees and a retail plant nursery.
We’ve caught you during the Covid-19 lockdown, how has this affected you?
“Positively! This coincides with our walnut harvest when we stock up on all necessities in advance and seldom leave the farm for six weeks. The big advantage is that one of our friends has “self-isolated” with us, and is helping us seven days each week instead of juggling his own job and our harvest.
How did you get involved with walnut farming?
We bought this property in 2004, when, after 34 years, the family home had become an empty nest. Being born and bred townies, we opted to try a life in the country.
Is this a hobby or something bigger?
We chose walnuts because they appealed to us as a high-nutrition food, and we wanted a hobby with an income. Little did we consider that the initial expenses would equal that income!
What does walnut farming involve?
The main issue is quality, the main activity is the harvest. We spray the trees to control blight, fertilise and irrigate to provide the essential food, harvest in late March to early May, and prune in July.
What’s the yield from your trees?
We inherited 240, eight-year old trees when we bought the property. We have since planted another 100. The yield from our 240 now-mature trees is approximately six tonnes. That depends on frosts which can affect our crop until mid-November.
Do you employ staff?
We have good friends who help us when they can. Otherwise we are the “squirrels”.
What do you do with the walnuts?
We wash, dry and sort the nuts by quality, variety and size before sending them to the factory. We began as peasants – selling our crop to the business that processed and marketed them. Now, we’ve become capitalists, with shares in the co-operative that bought the business, including the factory.
How does your engineering help you with this work?
I am in charge of irrigation for our walnut orchard and our retail plant nursery – my water supply background helps. We have a pothole-free drive – I get to use a grader to achieve the result that I was asking of grader operators. Excavators and mole ploughs are useful occasionally, so I get to put into practice what I have seen experienced operators do. Each year, we place a floor over our swimming pool so we can use the pool house as our processing shed for drying and sorting the nuts – structural engineering helped there.
What are the biggest challenges for a walnut farmer?
Getting quality nuts to the factory. That is where my quality assurance background has been useful. New Zealand produces walnuts of a higher quality than the imported ones we often see in shops.
We want to keep it that way.
What’s a walnut farmer’s favourite season?
For me, it is late spring to early summer when we can see the fruits of our labours growing on the trees, and we can begin to estimate the size of our crop.
How much time do you spend on this work?
I have retired from full-time engineering work, so my weekday is readily organised into three sessions: four hours in my office; four hours on the farm; four hours for Engineering New Zealand or Connexis. The latter session disappears during the walnut harvest, and it moves to the chilly mornings during winter.
What’s the main question you get asked when other engineers hear you have a walnut farm?
“Why?” To which I make the obvious reply: “Because we are nuts.”
This article was originally published in the June 2020 edition of EG magazine.