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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 7, 2007

Nuts for Kisses

By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

Jim Trump, left, and Manuel Yamamoto of North Kohala macadamia nut grower Island Harvest survey the surplus of nuts that will go unharvested.

DIANE REPP | Special to The Advertiser

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Macadamia nuts are grown by 650 to 700 independent farmers in Hawai'i. Since trees were first planted in the 1940s, they have become one of the state's top crops. Mac nuts are a popular snack, selling in local stores for about $4 for 5 ounces, and are considered a gourmet addition to cookies, coffee, ice cream and other goodies.

Most U.S. mac-nut exports go to Japan, with most of the remainder to Canada, South Korea, France, the Netherlands and Hong Kong, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Source: The Associated Press.

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Manuel Yamamoto of Island Harvest has rarely seen such a surplus, 700,000 pounds this season, in his 30-plus years of mac nut farming.

DIANE REPP | Special to The Advertiser

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This milk chocolate Hershey's Kiss features macadamia filling and Aloha labeling. The blue-foil wrapping has the words "macadamia nuts" stamped on it. But despite all appearances, the Hershey's Kisses while featuring a beach with palm trees and the Mauna Loa brand on the package may not contain Hawai'i-grown nuts.

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Hershey Foods and Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corp. have finally consummated their two-year-old partnership with a Kiss. Make that two macadamia nut-filled Kisses one covered in milk chocolate and the other blanketed in dark chocolate.

While some macadamia nut growers in Hawai'i welcomed the new product as a way to generate wider distribution for the state's No. 4 agricultural crop, it was unclear whether macadamia nut Kisses would actually increase sales of the local product.

Hawai'i macadamia nut growers are struggling to unload their product. A bumper crop this season and last season has resulted in a glut of nuts and prices are likely to fall.

The Hershey's Kisses while featuring a beach with palm trees and the Mauna Loa brand on the package may not contain Hawaiian nuts.

The Hershey, Pa.-based company, which bought Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corp. in 2004, did not disclose the source of macadamia nuts used in kisses. Kirk Saville, Hershey's spokesman in Pennsylvania, said on Friday that he "was still working on the macadamia sourcing question," after being asked on Thursday.

The milk chocolate version was launched in Hawai'i in September while the dark chocolate version was launched on the Mainland late last year. The wrapper on the milk chocolate Kisses says "Aloha" but nowhere on the packaging does it say the product is made in Hawai'i or includes Hawai'i-grown macadamia nuts.

The milk chocolate Kisses are available at a variety of stores, including Foodland, where an 11-ounce bag retails for $3.49. A 6.25 ounce boxed version is priced at $3.59.

"I think it's great," said Jim Trump, president for North Kohala macadamia nut grower Island Harvest Inc. "Any product that Hershey or anyone else brings out that's new and expands the world market is positive whether it's a Hawai'i nut or not."

Of course, Trump would like it more if the Kisses contained Hawaiian nuts. "Once you use the words aloha and beaches, I would think it would have to have a high percentage of Hawai'i nuts," Trump said. "If you're going to advertise Hawai'i, then it would need to have Hawai'i nuts."

Richard Schnitzler, president for macadamia nut grower and candy maker Hamakua Macadamia Nut Co., agreed that macadamia nut Kisses featuring Hawai'i brands or images should include local nuts.

"If they are Hawaiian (nuts) they should be put on the package," he said. "They should be very proud of it."

However, if macadamia nut Kisses drive up demand for macadamia nuts Hawai'i farmers should ultimately benefit.

"A Hershey Kiss is a Hershey Kiss," Schnitzler said. "If you put a macadamia nut in it that's great. It gives more exposure to mac nuts."

While well-known in Hawai'i, macadamia nuts are nowhere near as popular among Americans as almonds, walnuts, pecans and pistachio nuts. But, that's changing.

In 2004 U.S. per capita consumption of macadamia nuts rose to 0.11 pounds a year, which was a twofold increase over U.S. consumption in the mid-1990s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Australia, Hawai'i and South Africa are the world's top macadamia growers.

Last summer MacFarms of Hawaii, a major grower and processor, announced that it was indefinitely suspending purchases from independent growers. The company cited slowing demand, falling prices and its own large macadamia nut crop in the decision.

Unlike many other popular nuts, macadamias require significant processing including the removal of a husk and inner shell before they are sold to consumers. That means Hawai'i growers, which don't own nut-processing equipment, can't sell excess macadamia nuts directly to consumers.

North Kohala's Trump estimates that one-third his harvest for this season, or 700,000 pounds, will be left on the ground.

"It's been a tough year for nut growers," he said.

Hawai'i's macadamia nut harvest during the 2005-06 season rose 6 percent to 60 million pounds of wet, in-shell nuts because of favorable weather. That equates to about 12 million pounds of dried, macadamia nut kernels. Higher prices helped boost farm-level sales nearly 8 percent to $44.4 million.

Hawai'i's crop of macadamia nuts was eclipsed by nearly 18 million pounds of macadamia nuts imported into the U.S. in 2004, according to the USDA. Australia and South Africa were the largest producers of macadamia nuts imported to the U.S.

Even Hawai'i-based makers of macadamia nut candies don't always use Hawai'i-grown macadamias.

"By and large we try to use all Hawai'i nuts," said Keith Sakamoto, president for Hawaiian Host Inc. "We think part of the uniqueness of our brand is because we're so closely tied to Hawai'i."

Hawaiian Host claims to be the first company to sell chocolate-covered macadamias when a predecessor business started the practice in the 1930s. Sakamoto said he welcomed Hershey's push to take chocolate macadamias mainstream.

"We think it's great for the industry as a whole especially in Mainland markets where an awareness of macadamias is not so high," he said.

Reach Sean Hao at shao@honoluluadvertiser.com.

Correction: Hawai'i's macadamia nut harvest during the 2005-06 season rose 6 percent to 60 million pounds of wet, in-shell nuts. A previous version of this story stated an incorrect amount.