Hopping on the hazelnut hype train
by Courtney Llewellyn
If you saw our story about the autumn meeting of the New York Nut Growers Association (NYNGA) in the December 2020 issue of Country Folks Grower, you know that English walnuts are being developed into a potentially profitable crop in the Northeast. However, that’s not the only nut being considered. Hazelnuts are on the rise as well.
Over the last decade, growing food industry demand for hazelnuts has not been satisfied with a corresponding expansion in supply. Most worldwide commercial hazelnut orchards are traditionally concentrated in a select few areas – Turkey, Italy, Oregon and Azerbaijan. The growing demand for nuts and the necessary diversification of supply are spurring production in additional areas that are suitable for hazelnut tree cultivation.
According to Jeff Zarnowski of Z’s Nutty Ridge, a nut tree orchard in McGraw, NY, there are now 23 cultivars of hazelnuts in tissue culture – cultivars being the clones of superior trees that provide uniform nut quality and processing. There are currently five sources of hazelnut genetics in North America, including Z’s Nutty Ridge, the Upper Midwest Hazelnut Development Initiative, Grimo Nut Nursery, the Hybrid Hazelnut Consortium and a joint project between Rutgers University and Oregon State University.
“We need cultivars specifically for the Northeast,” Zarnowski said. Most grown now are mixes of European, American and Asian hazelnuts. Also known as filberts, hazelnuts are usually about an inch long and a half-inch in diameter. The nut falls out of its husk when it’s ripe (about seven to eight months post-pollination). The kernel of the seed is edible either raw or roasted, and the strongly-flavored hazelnut oil is used as a cooking oil. The nuts are high in protein, fiber, vitamin E, iron and other key nutrients. Hazelnut trees start producing around 10 years of age and can produce until they’re a century old.
There is potential for the crop across the Midwest and the Northeast in addition to its established presence in the Pacific Northwest.
In New Jersey, home of Rutgers, research has shown that the American hazelnut, native to much of the eastern U.S., produces small nuts with thick shells, making them unsuitable for commercial production. European cultivars tend to produce meatier nuts with thinner shells – but they’re susceptible to eastern filbert blight, a fungal pathogen that can kill hazelnut trees within a few years of planting. The goal of the Rutgers breeding program is to develop trees that are resistant to blight and which consistently produce a large amount of high quality nuts.
Thomas Molnar, assistant professor of plant biology at Rutgers and a plant breeder at the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (who did not present at the NYNGA meeting), has noted that given a growing demand for hazelnuts and the shortage of high-quality nuts globally, local farmers could benefit greatly from an increased level of production. New cultivars are released by Rutgers every year, according to Zarnowski.
In Oregon, about 1,000 farms grow 80,000 acres of hazelnuts. During the past five years, the total value growers received for their hazelnut crops averaged nearly $70 million – which in turn resulted in a total economic impact of more than $150 million in the state.
Zarnowski took all this into account when recommending a particular cultivar. “‘The Beast’ is the best,” he said. He noted four cultivars are currently being tested by Rutgers, which take their blight resistant genetics from the European varieties. It’s still a trial and error process for him in Western New York, however: “I planted 900 of their seedlings. Eleven years later, almost none are left. The hardiness zone is important.”
Like the NYNGA, Zarnowski is looking ahead at the next level of the industry for hazelnuts. He offers his Chestnut and Hazelnut Handbook on his site, ZNutty.com, as a guide. Those who might be interested in jumping into this developing industry may want to research sooner rather than later, though – hazelnuts start flowering in March.