by Ollie Benson
On the banks of the Coal River just outside of Richmond, Phil and Jane Dening, daughter Sophie and son-in-law Brad Milic have been busy harvesting this year’s crop of walnuts.
Passionate as they are about walnuts, and rightly proud of what they do, they are also successfully tackling another tricky challenge in farming – family succession. Coaldale Walnuts is an award-winning walnut farm. Established in 1997 by Phil and Jane, their orchard consists of 1500 trees across 10 acres of alluvial soils, with a mix of Chandler and Franquette varieties. The Franquette is mainly used as a pollinator, while the Chandler produces around 85% of the nuts. Having started as a joint venture with Webster Walnuts, they struck out on their own in 2006, built their first processing unit, and haven’t looked back.
When it comes to harvesting walnuts, the Coaldale team waits for the crop to fall naturally on the ground, and then over the course of several weeks the nuts are swept up using a small mechanical harvester. From there the crop is washed, sorted, and dried using processes and clever engineering that have been consistently refined over the years. Nuts are then sold in-shell or as packaged kernel and are stocked at a wide range of retail outlets in the state, as well as direct to consumers through their online shop and via the Tasmanian Produce Collective.
As well as selling fresh walnuts, Coaldale Walnuts also makes pickled walnuts, with the product winning several gold medals at the Royal Tasmanian Fine Food Awards and the Australian Food Awards. Each January, green walnuts are harvested from the trees before the shells form, then pricked, brined, lightly dried, and pickled in local cider vinegar and spices. As their pickled walnuts have grown in popularity Coaldale Walnuts is increasing production, diversifying their income, and becoming one of the country’s largest pickled walnut producers. Until now, the green walnuts have been hand-pricked, but Phil’s eye for creative solutions has him working on a machine that will speed up the process and allow for further expansion.
This continual reviewing of practices has been a real feature of the success of Coaldale Walnuts. Sheep are used to ‘mow’ the orchard, walnut shells from the cracking plant are used as mulch for the trees, soil is regularly tested, and moisture levels are monitored to allow for efficient irrigation. Their forward thinking has also led them to consider what the future might look like. Farm succession can be tricky to navigate for family run farms, but this family is doing it well. Sophie and Brad are now part-owners of the business, and with Sophie working for Coaldale full-time alongside Phil and Jane and planning for Brad to join them working on-farm, it’s clear that unlike their delicious walnuts, this family farm is not in a pickle!
Walnut ‘Sausage’ Rolls
This recipe for vegetarian walnut ‘sausage’ rolls comes from Coaldale Walnuts customer Madeleine.
1 brown onion (approx. 180g)
1 tbsp dried oregano
90g rolled oats
150g feta cheese, cut into pieces
1 tbsp tamari or soy sauce
3 sheets ready-made puff pastry, slightly thawed
Plain flour, for dusting
Milk, for brushing
Sesame or poppy seeds, for sprinkling (optional)
Method: Preheat oven to 200°C. Line a baking tray with baking paper and set aside. Roughly chop onion and place in a food processor. Add dried oregano, walnuts and rolled oats and whiz then scrape down the sides. Add eggs, feta cheese, tamari or soy sauce and breadcrumbs and combine. Cut puff pastry sheets into halves and transfer to silicone bread mat or floured work surface. Place one sixth of the mixture onto the long edge of one pastry sheet half and roll. Cut into four equal portions and place onto prepared baking tray. Brush pastry with milk and sprinkle with sesame seeds (optional). Repeat process with remaining mix and pastry sheet halves until all used. Bake for 20 minutes until crisp and golden. Allow to cool slightly before serving warm.