Professor is nutty about macadamias

On International Women’s Day, we acknowledge and celebrate the enormous contribution women make to the Australian macadamia industry. 

Professor Helen Wallace’s passion for all things macadamia was awakened in 1988 when she began a PhD studying the tree. After moving around in different jobs from Bundaberg to Victoria and overseas, she settled on the Sunshine Coast. Around four years ago she relocated to Brisbane where she works as a research professor with Griffith University. 

Helen explained that when she first became interested in macadamias, they were considered a cottage industry in Australia.

"There were about 6000 hectares of macadamias here in 1989 and of those, only 1200 hectares were bearing,” she said. “Now, the industry has changed from mum and dad farms to corporates.”

An impact of the development of the industry is that today’s growers think differently and have different priorities, so researchers like Helen have had to adjust their approach.

Working in the Pacific 

Before getting into macadamias, Helen’s training was as a plant ecologist. A move to research resulted in her looking at pollination, but she has not restricted her interest to macadamias. She has worked in horticulture and forestry and in some exciting developments in the Pacific Island communities, which she is still involved in.

“In the mid-2000s, we established a new industry in Papua New Guinea based on canarium nuts and that is going gangbusters now,” she said. “I used my knowledge of macadamias to help establish the canarium industry, and what I’ve learnt in Papua New Guinea, I’ve brought back to the macadamia industry here.”

Canarium is a small, soft nut shaped like an almond but with a similar oil profile to the macadamia, which makes it easy to eat. It is indigenous to the Pacific area, including Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and is known as Galip, Ngali and Nangai.

Helen sees her work in the Pacific, where she helps small landholders to earn a living, as very important. 

“These people are usually women with very little money so what they earn helps provide essentials, which gives me joy,” she said. “Many have told me that establishing these industries has changed their lives where they have been able to pay school fees for their children or buy fuel to keep the lights on for longer.”

While COVID put a stop to travelling, she is now planning her return to the Pacific Island communities.

“The industries have been ticking along and we are very keen to go back and fire them up, as well start on a big new project of forest restoration in the Solomon Islands,” she said.

Macadamias in the blood

Helen describes her role as a research professor whose career is about nuts, trees and bees.

“Macadamias gave me the start to my research career and, while I went on and did other things, they have remained in my blood and I can’t stay away from them,” she said.

Part of their appeal for Helen is that she believes they have so many good things going for them.

“They are the only native rainforest tree that has been commercialised, they are biologically interesting, and they are tasty and good for you. Not only that, but they are good for carbon sequestration,” she said.

The two aspects of her job that she loves are finding out new information and then giving it back to the people who can make a difference.

“I like to work with growers and provide them with information that is useful to them,” she said.

She also said that her main priority is producing food in a sustainable way.

“It is really important that we look after the planet, but we also need to grow food,” she explained.

Focus on pollination

Helen and her husband, Professor Stephen Trueman, have been working together on the  need for pollination in the macadamia industry, and are getting close to finding ways to achieve the best possible yields through pollination.

“We started talking about this thirty years ago and now, as old professors, we are finally getting the technology and funding to be able to answer the questions we were asking when we were young students,” she said.

One of the things that Helen has noted is that women are few and far between when it comes to working in macadamia research, and in the early days she was usually the only woman in the room.

“Being heard was an issue and I had to be persistent. It was also hard to get a job, as there was a definite preference for male researchers,” she said.

Helen now works alongside Associate Professor Shahla Hosseini-Bai at Griffth University but believes there is room for more women in research, where she thinks they should have more profile and recognition. And her sentiment extends beyond research.

“When working with the women smallholders, we try to give them more voice and agency, bringing out their confidence so they have more power in the family to make the decisions,” she said. “I see similar issues in Australia where women lack the confidence and their contribution isn’t valued.”

According to Helen, it is important for women to realise how important their work is  in the macadamia industry, and they shouldn’t undersell themselves.

“There is a lot of invisible work that women do and they don’t often recognise the value of this work,” she said. 

“I’d like to see women become more visible in the industry." 

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Supported by Hort Innovation and Macadamia Fund

This website has been partly funded by Hort Innovation, using the macadamia research and development levy and contributions from the Australian Government.