Everyone thought Barbara Eipper was a ''nut'' when she planted hazelnuts on the family farm outside the small town of Narrandera.
But now Italian chocolate company Ferrero Rocher has planted the first hazelnut trees of what will become a 1 million plantation on an old potato farm next door to the Eippers' small farm, Glendale, on the Murrumbidgee River.
''We are so pleased that our little foray into something we were told was absolutely crazy has eventuated into something like this next door,'' said Mrs Eipper. ''I am just a battling citrus grower who was willing to try anything.''
Ferrero's plantation will create 100 permanent and seasonal jobs for the Riverina town where falling citrus prices and drought have prompted some farmers to rip out orange trees.
The 2000-hectare plantation is the first step in a $70 million project by Ferrero - the maker of Nutella and those eponymous gold-wrapped hazelnut chocolates - to establish a local hazelnut industry.
Alessandro Boccardo, general manager of its local subsidiary, Agri Australis, said the company wanted to build a "complete production chain that we can control from the field to the factory to the mouth of the customer''.
The subsidiary plans to use the farm to demonstrate to farmers the potential of hazelnut cultivation as a new income stream.
If successful, Australia will become a net nut exporter instead of a net nut importer.
Launching the project, NSW Agriculture Minister Katrina Hodgkinson said it could kick start a $200 million export business.
"Once this farm is fully operational, it is expected it will generate some 5000 tonnes of hazelnuts. [It] has the potential, with the contribution of local growers, to enable the NSW industry to meet a target of 10,000 tonnes in the medium term.''
At present Australia produces 80 tonnes of hazelnuts a year. About 95 per cent of the local consumption is imported from Turkey, the world's largest producer.
Mr Boccardo said hazelnut trees were easily propagated. Ferrero would produce seedlings from trees imported from an area in Chile with a similar climate to the Riverina.
The story From a nutty little idea, hope for a $200m export industry first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.