When the conversation turns to West Coast tree nut production, much of it centers on California, where almonds, walnuts and pistachios are among the state’s top crops.
But the industry in the Golden State faces some emerging competition from the north for nut enthusiasts’ attention – hazelnuts.
Beaten down by a filbert blight several decades ago, the hazelnut industry is once again resurgent, principally in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, producers of 99% of America’s hazelnut output.
“We’re in a period of pretty profound increase right now,” says Nik Wiman, orchard crop specialist with the Oregon State University Extension Service. “The industry size has doubled in the last decade, now up to around 80,000 acres, more than half of that acreage consisting of young, immature plantings that generally take up to 12 years to grow to maturity.
“We have a lot of investment in our orchards where former farmland is being converted to hazelnuts because it being a mechanized crop requiring less labor, it’s one of the more profitable crops that can be grown in the valley,” he says.
Turkey dominates world hazelnut production, but Oregon is an up-and-coming competitor when it comes to free husk varieties.
“Historically they were grown on dry land, but we’re researching the benefits of irrigation, especially with our younger trees to get them into production earlier to recoup investment costs sooner,” Wiman says.
Hazelnuts were a popular Northwest crop grown throughout Western Oregon and Western Washington until an Eastern Filbert Blight nearly wiped things out in the 1960s.
“We’re now researching varieties of the nuts bred at Oregon State University that are blight-resistant and will grow well in our fertile soil and mild winters,” Wiman says. “Eventually I see expansion beyond the Willamette Valley that currently produces nearly all the U.S. crop.”
From bud break to harvest
Seasonally, bud break occurs in April depending on the variety being grown (although the OSU breeding program is trying to produce filbert trees that will mature earlier).
Nuts start dropping in late September into the month of October in Oregon’s generally-Mediterranean-type climate of dry summers and wet winters.
“Another reason we want to select for earlier cultivar maturity is because if we get caught out in the rain with nuts on the ground, that’s bad for product quality,” he says. “It makes for a dirtier harvest which ends up coming out of the grower’s bottom line in terms of cleaning fees.”
Harvesting is less intense in terms of labor as nuts fall from the trees, a sweeper moves them to center rows where harvesting tractors separate the nuts from the debris before filberts are placed into a tote which is sent to a processor for drying.
Depending on the quality of nuts in the trees and the rate of nut drop based on weather conditions, hazelnut orchards can be harvested up to three times during a season.
Hazelnuts, once just popular as part of the Christmastime nut bowl mix, are seeing more love from a consumer standpoint. The makers of Nutella and Ferrero Rocher candies use 25% of the global supply of hazelnuts and that’s a big part of the niche market as a food ingredient.
“Worldwide, the dominant market is for kernels rather than shelled product,” Wiman says. “Historically we had a niche market in Oregon for the shelled product that holiday consumers had to crack open, but the worldwide market is for kernels and that’s where we compete with Turkey and their cheaper prices. Our nut quality is quite a bit higher, but their pricing is markedly lower.”
Looking forward, “We have a lot of optimism in our industry and foresee tremendous growth in filbert nuts (Corylus avellana) that are rich in protein and a variety of essential nutrients.”
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