Hazelnuts

American hazelnuts (Corylus americana) may turn out to be the native plant which most materially impacts long-term food security.

Below is the schematic of our spring 2018 hazelnut planting.

The NY hazels are seedlings from hybrids developed at the Geneva Agricultural Experiment Station.

American hazelnuts, a tough, nut-producing shrub, can be found growing wild across almost the entire eastern half of the North American continent. These resilient plants harbor a blight caused by the fungus Anisogramma anomala known as Eastern Filbert Blight (EFB). The blight isn’t particularly detrimental to the American hazelnut; the plant and fungus have likely co-existed without much drama for thousands of years. Unfortunately, American hazelnuts produce tiny, thick-shelled nuts of little commercial value.

European hazelnuts (Corylus avellana), grown commercially and which produce larger, tastier nuts than American hazelnuts, are a crops that checks all the right boxes; a low-input, low-impact woody perennial that lasts decades and grows a high-calorie, nutritious, tasty food rich in antioxidants. Unfortunately, European hazelnuts are susceptible to Eastern Filbert Blight, which causes branch die-off and eventual death within 4 to 8 years of exposure.

Early attempts to grow European hazelnuts commercially in the eastern US failed because of Eastern Filbert Blight. It’s for this reason that when the US hazelnut industry finally emerged, it appeared on the west coast, outside of the native range of Corylus americana and therefore at least temporarily out of reach for EFB. However, EFB found its way out west in the 1970’s and the west coast hazelnut orchards began to face a painful and slow-moving choice of whether evolve, cope or die with coping proving difficult, costly and chemically intensive and how to evolve unclear.

This story is being rewritten now. North American hazelnut industry rebirth and expansion is being enabled by the development and release of cultivars resistant to EFB. Globally, hazelnuts have been cultivated and enjoyed for millennia. Commercial hazelnuts in the US have historically been an endeavor limited by EFB regardless how broadly that was recognized. Hazelnuts are the world’s fifth-largest tree nut crop, a crop worth $3.3 billion annually in recent years, and the U.S. represents only 3% to 4% of global production with substantially all production coming from Oregon (Johnston, 2014). There is every reason to believe that, with time, the US will become a major global player in hazelnuts, creating thousands of jobs.

A major US hazelnut industry roadblock was removed in 2009, when Oregon State University released several EFB resistant cultivars suitable for that region. Because nut crops take years to establish, there is a lag between industry expansion and nut production growth and a growth trend in Oregon’s hazelnut production numbers is now clearly visible on the chart below. In 2018, it was reported that 15,000 acres of hazelnut trees had been planted in Oregon since 2009 (Sargent, 2018). Production doesn’t appear to be systematically tracked for other parts of the US probably because historically, the hazelnut contribution from other parts of the US has been insignificant. This will change in coming decades because the factor limiting industry growth has changed. The Upper Midwest Hazelnut Development Initiative has been working with around 150 growers to identify the best EFB resistant hazelnut seedlings for commercial production and regional plantings are expanding. A recently formed New York company has publicly declared an objective of getting 4,000 acres of hazelnut trees in the ground within a decade with a nearer-term objective of 400 planted acres in the process of being achieved (Frisch, 2020).

This image was taken from a UDSA press release. (USDA, 2020)

It’s unclear which hazelnut varieties will prove most commercially viable long-term but it is clear that the foundation to a future North American hazelnut industry are varieties that will produce a large and tasty nut and also resist EFB. The industry appears to have already turned the corner and is now on a growth trajectory. This rising industry will be much less geographically restricted and opens the door to taking advantage of other benefits hazelnuts offer, such as their need for minimal inputs and their ability to grow in areas not suitable for conventional farming. A strong lure for hazelnut planting is the flexibility with which it could be integrated with various landscapes. A fast-growing nut-producing shrub seems ideally suited to contribute to multifunctional landscape design.

Our hazelnuts are a test to see what happens when hazelnut hybrids are planted amongst black walnut trees. We would like to see the trait of “black walnut tolerant” added to “EFB resistant”, “cold-hardy” and “large, tasty fruit” for at least some varieties being developed. Allelopathic black walnut trees produce a substance that can inhibit the growth of sensitive plants nearby. American hazelnuts, like many other northeastern natives, can tolerate growing near black walnuts but the degree of black walnut tolerance in hazelnut hybrids is less clear. With the exception of the red leaf hazels, our hazelnuts are seedlings of hybrids and therefore not genetically identical. Those that prove their worth over time in a black walnut rich environment can be further propagated. Time will reveal both the level of blight resistance and nut productivity of these hazelnuts. Future test plantings are envisioned as new varieties become available.


Black Squirrel Farms strives for accuracy but everyone makes mistakes sometimes. We’re happy to update our information if needed. Please contact us if you spot an error or have a suggested edit, update or information inclusion. Help is welcome.


References:

Frisch, T. Melding Farm and Forest – Planting Nut Trees Puts a New Agricultural Model to the Test. Acres USA, July, 2020.

Johnston, M., The Great American Hazelnut Hunt, https://modernfarmer.com/2014/04/great-american-hazelnut-hunt/, Modern Farmer, April 22, 2014.

Molnar, T. et al., Hazelnuts: A New Sustainable Crop for the Northeastern United States. https://projects.sare.org/sare_project/one09-106/, Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education funded project report, 2011.

Sargent, J., The boom in hazelnuts. https://www.capitalpress.com/state/oregon/the-boom-in-hazelnuts/article_e6994e91-455e-5200-b115-9db0810b1d93.html, Capital Press, (updated) Dec 13, 2018

Shepard, M., Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers. 2013

USDA, NATIONAL AGRICULTURAL STATISTICS SERVICE, 2020 Hazelnut Production Forecast at New Record High, https://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/Oregon/Publications/Fruits_Nuts_and_Berries/2020/HZ0820_1.pdf, Aug 25,2020