September Farming in Focus: Hazelnuts

I’m sure by now you’ve come to expect that I’m going to be late on my Farming in Focus post. This is a new level of late for me – I’m almost a month late posting this! There are reasons (excuses) that may or may not be any good, but I’m going to go with them anyway. The primary driver in this being late is that we had to wait for the nuts to fall off the tree, which is a pretty good reason, right? This harvest was supposed to take place at the end of September, but it got pushed out to middle of October. Because I had it slated for September, I’m still calling it September! This  month I visited a good friend whose husband grows hazelnuts, among other things, in Rickreall, Oregon.

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Keith Marx (left) is a 4th generation farmer who came back to the farm six years ago after leaving a career in engineering. He now farms roughly 1,000 acres with is his father, Merle (right). The original family farm was much larger, but when Merle’s father died the acreage was divided amicably between Merle and his siblings.

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In addition to hazelnuts, Marx grows grass seed, wheat, turnip seed, canola, vetch, and rotates in other crops as it makes sense. Some of these crops are irrigated using the irrigation pond (above) which is filled from rainwater and rainwater runoff.  The pond was built in the 80s and fills itself completely every year. Much of what Marx grows depends on what kind of contracts he can get for the season, but as hazelnut trees can produce for up to 80 years, that crop is a bit of a long-term commitment and therefore doesn’t necessitate a contract.

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Marx’s family is only recently getting back into growing Hazelnuts, as are many Oregon growers. A fungal disease called Eastern Filbert Blight (EFB), evident in the above image by the dead limbs on a neighboring hazelnut orchard, destroyed roughly 1,600 acres of Oregon hazelnut trees during the 1990s. Farmers can attempt to manage EFB by a number of methods, but there is no single solution to cure the trees. Fortunately, ongoing breeding efforts at Oregon State University have resulted in the introduction of new blight resistant varieties. Oregon growers have since planted roughly 4,000 acres of these new varieties, many of which are now beginning to produce nuts.

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Marx has roughly 140 acres of hazelnut trees, all of which are blight resistant varieties. Only about 40 acres are currently producing nuts, as it takes four years for the trees to produce nuts. These baby trees above are in their first year, and it’ll be another three before Marx can start to see the fruits of his labor.

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Until I moved to Oregon, all I knew about hazelnuts is that they’re in Nutella. Now I know that hazelnuts (also called filberts) are the Oregon state nut and that 99 percent of US-grown hazelnuts are grown in Oregon. Turkey produces about 80 percent of the world’s hazelnut market, followed by Europe which produces about 13 percent, and the US (almost exclusively from Oregon) which produces about seven percent. Interestingly (at least to me) hazelnuts are actually harvested off the ground. Growers wait until hazelnuts fall off the tree and then essentially drive through the orchard and sweep them up.

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As you can imagine, hazelnut growers spend a lot of time managing the floor of the orchard, because when the nuts fall to the ground and get swept into tidy rows, anything that’s on the ground gets swept with them. This is a relatively new crop for Marx, and he’s learning as he goes. This year’s harvest was hindered a little by weeds on the orchard floor, and he plans to spend more time managing those weeds in the future.

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After all the nuts are swept into a row, the harvester comes through and collects the nuts and debris. The harvester tumbles and shakes the nuts to separate them from the husks and debris.

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Then the nuts are unloaded into bins to be sent to be processed. There they are washed and disinfected, dehusked and dried to about ten percent moisture. At that point they are sent to packaging or to long term storage. Last year, most of Marx’s hazelnuts went to the local confection market, ending up in things like chocolate covered hazelnuts. About 60 percent of Oregon’s hazelnuts are exported in their shells, primarily to China.

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As this is only Marx’s second harvest of hazelnuts, they’re still working out the kinks. I got to experience some real-life farming when I visited: a broken harvester. Marx, like most farmers, spends a lot of time fixing machinery. I’m sure it helps that he’s also an engineer. I stood around and munched on raw hazelnuts while we waited. I didn’t have to crawl under the harvester with a screwdriver, so I think I got the good end of the deal. 
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Last year hazelnut prices jumped after a frost seriously damaged nearly one quarter to one half of Turkey’s crop. As a result, domestic consumers are demanding higher quality nuts, and it’s projected that this year prices will remain high.

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Before the nuts have even fallen off the tree, the hazelnut tree is already preparing for the next season. Green catkins (as seen above) create pollen that pollinates tiny red flowers in the middle of winter. Then the tree stays dormant until June when the nuts begin to form. After harvest, Marx will feed the trees with fertilizer and apply lime to the soil. Because hazelnut trees are actually a bush, not a tree, they send out new shoots from the ground called suckers in an attempt to become a bush once again. Marx will spend quite a bit of time pruning those suckers so they don’t trap falling nuts and sap the resources the tree could be using to produce nuts. Marx says the biggest pest he’s faced are squirrels that steal the nuts off the ground before he can harvest them. “There are hundreds of nuts literally squirreled away over there,” he told me, pointing to the edge of the field. If he waits to harvest until all the nuts fall from the tree, a good portion of it will be lost to squirrels.

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I got to do some real day-in-the-life of a farmer stuff while I visited, too, like going to fetch coffee for the hard working farmers. Turns out farmers do actually go to the local coffee shop where they know you by name and you get to hear all the dish on the locals. I even got a free cookie with my coffee. Tiffany, Marx’s wife, who works as an appraisal services coordinator at Contour Valuation Services, was nice enough to help me out by giving me a great tour and providing me much of the factual information for this post, and she even bought my coffee! 🙂 You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter as to see cool farm photos and facts. Did you learn something fun about hazelnuts today? Leave a comment if you did. See you next time!

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