by: Haley Arjen & Thom O’Dell
What does the latest research on hazelnuts mean for local farmers?
Hazelnuts, also known as filberts, have a long history in BC as a commercial crop with value, partly because there are few places in the world as well suited for their production. Corylus avellana, the species of commerce, can produce a superior quality high-protein food crop from a new planting beginning in just three to five years. This is much earlier than most other nuts, and trees remain productive for many decades. Today, demand for hazelnuts exceeds supply both locally and globally. Despite high demands, hazelnut production in BC has encountered a difficult challenge in the last decade, and current research in the field offers hope and new promise for the future!
Commercial production of hazelnuts in BC dates to the 1930’s, and by 2000, there were over 800 acres of hazelnut trees in the Fraser Valley producing over 300 tons of nuts per year. Unfortunately, eastern filbert blight (EFB) arrived soon thereafter. EFB is caused by a fungus (Anisograma anomala) native to eastern North America. It arrived in Oregon in the 1970’s, and made it’s way to BC in2003.
A quarantine preventing importation of hazelnut trees (except in tissue culture) to British Columbia was put in to effect. Critics argued that the disease was already here and the border should be opened, but introductions of more of the hundreds of strains of blight (currently only one is known to be found on the west coast) could allow it to become even more virulent. In addition, a supply of new, blight-resistant, varieties is now available, so it’s prudent to continue the quarantine to slow the evolution and spread of the disease.
Oregon State University (OSU) in Corvallis has had a large hazelnut breeding program for over forty years. With substantial research funding from growers, they apply classic selective breeding to produce superior trees. Thousands of seedlings from select crosses are screened for vigor, disease and pest resistance, flavor, yield and so on. Most are discarded and a few superior trees are grown on for larger scale trials. Those that pass muster by growers are released as named selections, including Jefferson and Yamhill, now available in BC.
The past ten years has seen the release of many new hazelnut varieties selected for EFB resistance, nut quality, and pollen characteristics. Some new varieties can produce almost double the yield per acre of the old standard Barcelona. By creating new varieties with high resistance to EFB, the OSU breeding program has rescued the hazelnut industry in Oregon, which is now growing by about 3000 acres per year!
Hazelnut farmers, the BC Hazelnut Grower’s Association (BCHGA), the Investment Agriculture Foundation (IAF) and Nature Tech Nursery are partnering to evaluate six of the new varieties at six locations in the lower Mainland and Gulf Islands of BC, with sites planted over the past two years. We will measure timing of flowering, pollen shed and nut production, as well as the harvest date for the next several years. BC growers will soon have local data to inform their decisions about planting new varieties. There will be a session on hazelnuts, including more information about the hazelnut variety trial, at the Pacific Agriculture Show taking place in Abbotsford in January, 2014.
Hazelnuts are a relatively low labour and input crop with good opportunities for intercropping during orchard establishment. By its seventh year, an acre of orchard can produce two tons or more per year of tasty nuts. Rich in oil and protein, the nuts are incredibly versatile for adding value (nut butter, dry-roasted nuts, candy, nutritional supplements, skin cream… and more!). With a local facility set up for processing organically produced nuts, an additional premium can more easily be realized by organic farmers. Growing nuts to get farm tax status on a small acreage is attractive and achievable for part-time or retired farmers.
EFB may have knocked back the industry but the long term support by growers for research has paid big dividends with disease-resistant, high-yielding varieties. Since they can be grown in only a few parts of the world, and demand is exceeding supply, BC farmers would do well to consider diversifying with hazelnuts.