The potential of growing hazelnuts

EAU CLAIRE — The hazelnut is loaded with potential. Jason Fischbach, Extension agriculture agent for Ashland and Bayfield counties, is among those tasked with unlocking that potential in the Upper Midwest; no small task, considering it includes building an industry nearly from scratch.

On March 8-9, Fischbach hosted the 10th annual Upper Midwest Hazelnut Growers Conference in Eau Claire, providing about 100 attendees with information on how to grow, harvest and sell hazelnuts and offering updates on hazelnut research and development projects taking place in the Upper Midwest and beyond.

“It’s rare to have a new crop like this,” Fischbach said. “But if we can pull it off, the payout should be significant.”

Since helping organize the Upper Midwest Hazelnut Development Initiative in 2007 to help Midwest hazelnut growers build an industry, Fischbach and other researchers, growers and breeders have been working to develop commercially viable hazelnut cultivars suitable to the region; provide education and technical assistance for growers; and help establish a system for hazelnut processing, market development and capitalization.

“It’s been a big project, and it’s been a slow project,” Fischbach said. “There was a big flurry of activity early on, and we’ve been trying to build a program to meet the industry’s needs.”

At the inception of the Upper Midwest Hazelnut Development Initiative, Fischbach partnered with Lois Braun, a research scientist at the University of Minnesota, and they began looking for improved varieties of hazelnuts that could work in the cold winters of the Upper Midwest.

Braun’s initial interest in hazelnuts came from the potential the plant has to prevent nutrient runoff.

“One of the things that makes perennial crops so beneficial in terms of reducing pollutants is that they’re very good at holding on to nutrients,” Braun said. “Every year when you see those autumn leaves turning color, what’s happening is those nitrogenous compounds in the leaves are being withdrawn from the leaves into the stems of the plants, the trunks, the root systems to be stored over winter and used again the next year.”

Fischbach has helped secure almost $500,000 in grant funding that has been put toward screening wild populations of American hazelnut for potential domestication and developing mechanical harvesting options and enterprising budget tools.

Certain types of hazelnuts are native to the Upper Midwest, and large stands exist in northern Minnesota and in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin.

Ninety-nine percent of hazelnuts grown in the U.S. are grown in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, which has a Zone 8 climate, Fischbach said. Oregon growers have added almost 40,000 acres in the last five years. Total U.S. hazelnut production is about 90 million pounds.

But because the European hazelnut is not hardy in the Upper Midwest, Fischbach and Braun began looking to both the wild American hazelnut growing in Minnesota and Wisconsin and to farmers growing hybrid hazelnuts that are offspring from crosses between American hazelnut and European hazelnut for a plant that would have success in this climate.

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