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  • Jim Chamberlin

Let's Go Nuts: A New Opportunity in Agriculture

Happy Dancing Turtle is looking for landowners interested in planting a new and exciting crop – hybrid hazelnuts. They will be seeking funding to help cover some of the cost of establishing the plantings, with the goal of establishing enough hazelnuts in the area to justify mechanical harvesting and dehusking equipment. The minimum size planting per property is approximately 5 acres, or 1600 plants. There will be a public meeting to discuss this project in more detail coming soon. For more information, call Jim at 218-587-2303.

Even if you don't own land to grow hazelnuts, anyone who eats food (i.e. all of us!) can benefit from their being available locally. Hazelnuts are a healthy source of protein with good market potential. They are often eaten raw or roasted as a snack food, used in baking, or as an ingredient in ice cream or salads. Oil from hazelnuts has nutritional qualities similar to olive oil, and it has a high flash-point making it a valuable culinary addition to any kitchen. Globally, there is strong market demand for hazelnuts, valued as a spreadable nut butter and as a chocolate covered confectionery, with demand far exceeding supply.

American hazelnuts (Corylus americana Marshall) are native to the Midwest and are found in abundance in our forests and rural landscapes. These native plants have evolved to be resistant to the hazelnut disease, Eastern Filbert Blight (EFB), and have the cold-hardiness necessary to survive the harsh winters of Northern Minnesota. Since the early 1900s northern nut growers, breeders, and researchers have been actively crossing native hazelnuts with the larger-fruiting, thinner-shelled, European hazelnut (C. avellana), in an effort to combine the best traits of the two species. 

Midwest researchers, including the University of Minnesota and Central Lakes College, began working on improving hybrid hazelnut genetics in the late 1990s. These past efforts have led to recent breakthroughs in identifying the best cultivars for production, putting hybrid hazelnuts on an exciting track to become the Upper Midwest’s first major agricultural nut crop.

As a perennial nut crop, something lacking in our region and climate, hybrid hazelnuts can provide a healthy and delicious source of protein and oil. In the Upper Midwest, hybrid hazelnuts are typically grown in hedgerows to facilitate mechanical harvesting, and often promoted in an “alley cropping” system, where hedgerows are spaced wide enough apart to facilitate growing forage, hay, or crops between them.

Alley cropping. Photo from the National Agroforestry Center of the USDA.

When planted on contour, these deep-rooted perennial plants reduce soil erosion and absorb excess nutrients from shallow groundwater. And, as a long-lived species with a fibrous root system, they are well suited to windbreaks, riparian buffers, and farmstead shelterbelts, and they provide valuable habitat for birds, pollinators, and other wildlife. Finally, once established, they have the potential to be a low input food crop that can capture carbon in the soil and help to diversify farm income.

For almost two decades, the Upper Midwest Hazelnut Development Initiative (UMHDI), a collaboration of the Universities of Wisconsin and Minnesota, has been working to develop the supply chain for hybrid hazelnuts. They have identified several cultivars that have the potential to be economically profitable, producing around 1000 pounds of shelled nuts per acre, and they are working with the private sector to develop scale-able propagation methods to meet the demand for planting stock. Viable mechanized harvesting and dehusking methods have been identified, and the American Hazelnut Company, a for profit grower cooperative, is buying in-shell hazelnuts or will process them for a fee.

Whether you are a potential consumer or producer (or both!), hybrid hazelnuts locally grown could have numerous positive impacts. To learn more about agroforestry, check out this blog post as well as the role of agroforestry in soil health in this blog.


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