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Bringing Hazelnut Production to a Farm Near You!

Casey Dahls Feral Farm LogoCasey Dahl is the owner/operator of Feral Farm, a permaculture based agroforestry farm in Southeastern Wisconsin.  Feral Farm grows ecosystems of nuts, fruits, and livestock that mimic the natural plant communities of Wisconsin.This winter Casey got the chance to attend the Upper-Midwest Hazelnut Development Initiative’s (UMHDI) annual conference in Gays Mills, Wisconsin.  The two day conference brought together hybrid hazelnut growers, breeders, and processing equipment builders from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa.  Here, Casey reports on what he learned.

All About UMHDI

UMHDI brings together growers, breeders, extension, and university expertise to create a very unique organization that is spear heading the adoption and creation of a hazelnut industry in the Midwest. While there has never been such a concerted, collaborative effort the foundation of UMHDI rests on almost 100 years of breeding and experimenting with hazelnuts.

Gays Mills, location of the conference and the future Midwest Hazelnut Company

Gays Mills, location of the conference and the future Midwest Hazelnut Company

UMHDI has been working on all aspects of growing hybrid hazels. They have conducted studies on plant mortality related to nursery source, tree tube protection, and different site preparation approaches. They have also worked with current growers to help them evaluate plantings and select the best plants from their fields. These selected plants are currently undergoing variety trials at several locations around the Midwest.

Hazel what?

Plant names can be very confusing, especially when there are many common names for one plant. Hazelnuts are also referred to as filberts. When breeders started crossing species they often mixed common names and created confusing combinations such as hazelberts, filazels, and trazels. The two primary species we are concerned with in the Midwest are Corylus americana and Corylus avellana.

Hazelnut Bush

Hazelnut bush form without training

Corylus americana is the native wild hazelnut whose range includes all of the Eastern US besides Florida.  C. americana is adapted to the cold, continental climate of the Midwest and is immune or resistant to the native Eastern Filbert Blight (EFB) disease. It is a colony forming, multi-stemmed shrub that grows from four to seven feet high. While it has excellent kernel quality the nuts are small and thick shelled.

Corylus avellana is the European hazelnut and the hazelnut that you buy in the grocery store, so it sets the standard for size and quality. Its native range covers most of Europe and western Eurasia. It is a multi-stemmed shrub but it produces thicker and fewer stems than C. Americana.

American growers prune C. avellana to a single trunk and spray either herbicide or a plant hormone to keep new shoots from establishing on the trunk. Commercial production in America of this species is in Oregon and Washington. C. avellana is not cold hardy in the Midwest, at least not the available commercial varieties, and is weakened and killed by EFB.

There are other species of interest in the Corylus genus but they are not grown at near the scale of C. avellana and they also do not make up much of the genetics of the current hybrids grown in the Midwest.

A History of Hybrid Hazelnuts

There have been attempts to grow European hazels in the Eastern U.S. dating back to the 1800’s.  These early plantings taught growers that European hazels were not cold hardy in this region and that a native disease (EFB) would kill them if the winter didn’t.  Eventually, it was determined that one could cross European with the wild American hazels and, the hope was, combine the best aspects of both species.

In the early 20th century there were many crosses made. Unfortunately most of these where simple crosses with the first generation becoming named cultivars. Many did not stand up to the tests of winter or EFB.

Hazelnut cluster on bush

During the 30’s and 40’s Carl Weschcke started making crosses between wild American hazelnuts and his collection of hybrids from other breeders at his farm in north-eastern Wisconsin. His planting consisted of many more hybrids and more complex hybrids than most breeders. Out of all his nut growing experiments he felt hybrid hazelnuts showed the most commercial promise. However, as he was starting a hazelnut butter processing facility his planting was struck by EFB. After being told that there was no hope for his plants he abandoned his hazelnuts.

In the early 80’s Phil Rutter received permission to search Weschcke’s hazelnut planting for any surviving hybrids.  What he found would become the basis for the Badgersett breeding program. Through adding further wild American hazelnut genetics with Weschcke’s and other breeder’s hybrids, Badgersett was able to create a large gene pool from which to select from.

Badgersett plants later became the basis of many other plantings and breeding programs, including Mark Shepard’s. Badgersett and Mark Shepard’s Forest Agriculture Enterprises produce the most nursery stock and most plants in the Midwest originate from one or the other.

Early Adopters

People become attracted to hybrid hazelnuts for a number of reasons. Some people see a new crop that can add monetary and ecological diversity to established farms. Others focus on their potential for biofuel production. Some see it as a niche crops, some see it as a new commodity that could replace current annual row crops. Whatever their interest, people started planting hybrid hazels throughout the Midwest.

Hazelnuts from husks to meat

Hazelnuts (left) in husk (center) in shell (right) cracked

These early adopters took a risk with a new crop that has enormous potential but no processors to shell the nuts. Perhaps many growers hoped to sell in-shell nuts but quickly found that market was small or non-existent in their area. Many producers used their crop to produce nut finished pork; other started building up their own processing capacity, but many growers just didn’t know what to do with their nuts.

Hazelnuts would remain a hobby or a side project for many producers. Most growers agreed that there needed to be processing capacity in the Midwest. However, there weren’t enough nuts to process in order to justify the capitalization needed for such a business.  Until now.

The Conference

The first day of the Midwest Hazelnut Conference focused on processing and the formation of The Midwest Hazelnut Company. Different husking, sorting, shelling, and separating machines where on hand and demonstrated to the attendees. This created a basis for the discussion of The American Hazelnut Company and what it would need to do in order to turn grower’s hazelnuts into shelled nuts and value added products like hazelnut oil and hazelnut meal.

Hazelnut size sorter demo

Jason Fischbach of UW-Extension Bayfield did an excellent job of facilitating input and questions. The American Hazelnut Company’s proposed location in Gays Mills, Wisconsin was selected due to its proximity to the majority of hybrid hazelnut production in the Midwest. While a site for the storage and shelling of nuts still needs to be decided upon, The Kickapoo Culinary Center, where the conference was held, is slated to be the location for any value-added processing of the nuts.

Next, Josh Engle from Driftless Organics talked about their farm’s production and marketing of sunflower oil to offer a real world example of a specialty oil business. Participants then had a chance to stretch their legs and receive a tour of The Kickapoo Culinary Center from its director Brad Niemcek.

The Kickapoo Culinary Center offers a certified kitchen for food processing, catering, and value-added product incubators. With its infrastructure already in place, it offers an ideal solution for processing shelled nuts from The Midwest Hazelnut Company.

After lunch the discussion of The Midwest Hazelnut Company turned to the organizational structure. As proposed, the company would be structured as a new generation cooperative. Purchase of a company share by a producer would allow them to sell a predetermined amount of hazelnuts to the company.

Mark Shepard’s Terminutter Nut Cracker with a home-made sorter in the background

Investor members would also be needed to raise the amount of money needed to start and operate the company. However, grower members will always be kept in the majority so that their interests come first. This structure allows producers to have a say in how the company is run and to have greater influence on the price that they receive for their crop.

The second day of the conference focused on the growing of hybrid hazelnuts. Jeff Jensen of Trees Forever presented a Hazelnuts 101 course that went over the entire process of growing hybrid hazels, from site preparation, to pruning, to long-term maintenance.

Lois Braun from The University of Minnesota and her graduate student Molly Krieser then updated us on the progress of their research into vegetative propagation. For a hazelnut industry to develop in the Midwest it will be crucial to be able to select superior plants and propagate them cheaply and efficiently. Unfortunately, asexual propagation of hazelnuts is not easy. However, Lois Braun’s research is getting us closer to being able to.

To propagate superior plants you need to find superior plants. Lois Braun’s second presentation filled us in on the preliminary results of her variety trials. Plantings from around the Midwest were searched to find the best producing plants with good kernel quality.

Super Squirrel Husker

Clones of these plants are now being evaluated to determine if their characteristics are due to genetics or site.  While all of the plants are still young they are showing promise, however, it is too early in the trials to make any conclusions.

To finish out the conference, Jeff Jensen took us through the enterprising budget spreadsheet created by Jason Fischbach. This budgeting tool helps prospective hazelnut growers estimate their costs and future returns and is available on the UMHDI website.

The Midwest Hazelnut Conference offered a lot of information. What I took away was a sense of hope for the future of Midwest hazelnut growers.  It is exciting to be on the cusp of a new local perennial crop working its way into the market. To look back at the hundred years worth of work that brought us to this point, the experimenters, the breeders, the inventors, all contributing to get us where we are now, its hard not to be excited about what’s to come.

For more information about growing hazelnuts in the Midwest, check out the UMHDI website, then order some from the suppliers, to start growing your own!

all pictures courtesy Casey Dahl and Feral Farm

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