Rutgers research creates opportunity for hazelnut growers

They’re buying huge quantities of nuts from Turkey right now. If we can breed great-quality nuts and give them what they’re looking for, there’s great opportunity,” says Tom Molnar, a plant breeder at Rutgers University. The scientist is excited about the prospects for hazelnut growers in the northeastern U.S. and Ontario, Canada.

After a visit from the largest buyer of hazelnut kernels in the world, Molnar and his team started brainstorming. They needed a way for growers in the Northeast to meet Italian candy company Ferrero’s need for vast quantities of hazelnuts each week. The company, which produces Nutella and Ferrero Rocher candies, has been expanding its candy plant in Brantford, Ont., as demand for the hazelnut products has increased. Ferrero also purchases nuts from Oregon, but the ‘Barcelona’ variety, which still makes up a significant portion of Oregon’s production, is too large for the candymaker’s needs and doesn’t blanch well. While Ferrero buyers like the new releases from Oregon State University better, they also want to source hazelnuts locally. “We do have a buyer if we can produce a high-quality crop here. They’re still trying to identify the right plants, and that’s why they brought me in,” explains Molnar.

Now, in addition to breeding trials, Molnar is exploring how to foster a collaborative of smaller growers to meet the needs of Ferrero. “If growers have only 100 or 200 acres, it’s not enough,” he says. “I envision many, many diverse small farms who grow 8 to 15 acres of hazelnuts interspersed with seven or 10 other crops.”

Trees are spaced about 20 feet apart in rows, which leaves plenty of space for vegetables or lowbush berries to flourish between the trees for several years before the trees mature. Intercropping among trees is possible and necessary for growers just adding hazelnuts to their operations, because economic returns for the nut don’t arrive for about five years.

At the direct-market level, growers who add hazelnuts to their crop repertoire will benefit from having additional offerings for their customers at local farmers’ markets and farmstands. For small-scale growers interested in branching out, adding hazelnuts to their operation and selling the product to the collaborative will enable them to tap into a larger system of Northeast growers. This may be the only way any hazelnut grower in the Northeast will have a chance of competing with Oregon’s growers, many of whom operate on farms comprised of several hundred acres.

“There’s a demand for hazelnuts as food right now, so that gives the farmers the opportunity to make more money [than for oil],” reports Molnar. In the long term, however, Molnar expects to see the Northeast’s hazelnut growers serving the industrial oil and biofuel industries as well. Food crop hazelnuts must be harvested and dried quickly to prevent mold and contamination. Farmers growing hazelnuts for fuel have the advantage of time, with less pressure to harvest the nuts quickly and dry them rapidly.

Less sweet, more profitable?

The hazelnut kernel contains about 60 percent oil. Some hazelnut varieties contain up to 75 percent oil. Molnar has also been breeding the plants for oil content since 2008, intending to create a perennial competitor to soybeans for biofuels, lubricants and other industrial uses. However, it will be a while before farmers can sell hazelnut oil for biofuel, as Molnar and his team are still working to develop plants that are well-suited for the purpose.

Although current yields of hazelnuts provide at least double the oil yield of soybeans, Molnar believes that growing soybeans is still currently more economically beneficial than hazelnuts. Hazelnut trees tolerate a wide range of growing conditions, but the wind-pollinated plants grow best on rich, moist, well-drained soils. “If we can adapt hazelnuts – which I think we can – for poor soils that you couldn’t grow soybeans on, then it becomes a different thing,” he says.

One of the goals at Rutgers’ research facility is to tap the wild hazelnut species for genes that are especially well-adapted to poor or marginal soils, on which one wouldn’t typically grow annual crops. The researchers also want to develop a perennial plant that can grow on sloping lands that are too steep for annuals. Hazelnuts are already grown on such lands in Turkey.

Researchers anticipate that the nut quality in the earlier-generation hybrids will be poorer anyway. By developing hazelnut as an industrial crop, the researchers can help farmers find customers outside the food and fuel industries.

Molnar sees big potential for organic hazelnut farms. “Even fertility could probably be managed easily organically,” asserts the researcher. Hazelnuts have very few pests in comparison to other crops. Apple pest management guides are hundreds of pages. In Oregon, the pest management guide for hazelnuts is shorter than 20 pages. “There are really very few pests, and no other diseases you need to spray for, or spray for often, other than eastern filbert blight.” Rutgers’ resistant cultivars wouldn’t need spraying, and that leads Molnar and his team to believe there’s potential for organic production.

“If we could develop an industry here, and had organic growers who could produce an organic hazelnut product, I think we could do quite well for ourselves.”l

The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts and a monthly contributor to Growing.