Native hybrid hazelnuts provide a crop that is consistently in short supply, well known by consumers, and nearly grow themselves.
by Dawn and Jeff Zarnowski
Tasty and healthy hazelnuts are used in many food products desired by consumers and are chronically in short supply. Almost all hazelnuts consumed in North America are sourced from either Oregon or Turkey. Yet, hazelnut trees are native to the eastern half North America from Louisiana to Georgia in the south, to Manitoba and Quebec in the north. The native hazelnut trees (Corylus americana) are hardy, disease resistant and are very tolerant of a wide range of growing conditions, and yet there is a shortage of nuts. The native nuts tend to be small and are not as tasty as the European hazelnuts (Corylus avellana) that that have been selected for quality for hundreds and thousands of years. This is where hybridization of the two hazelnut species for the past century has yielded new varieties that have the best qualities of both. Hazelnut organizations have formed to promote growing this native crop with improved qualities.
Another wonderful thing about hazelnut trees is you don’t have to wait long before the tree will bear nuts for you to eat. Hazel trees start bearing in as little as 4 years and heavy yields in year six or seven. Also, you can choose to grow it as a bush or a single stem tree. A multi-stem bush will form if you don’t mow or cut down the shoots that grow near the base of the tree. In bush form it will grow 8 feet to 12 feet tall. In bush form, the hazelnut allows for easy hand picking of the nuts, and carefree environmental plantings for erosion control or as a hedge. If you choose to grow it as a single stem tree it will grow 14 feet to 16 feet tall and nearly as wide. Once the tree is big enough to shade the base, the shoots won’t grow. The native hazelnut tree is adaptable and easy to grow; but, it took many generations of hybridizing to generate native trees with large tasty nuts.
The reason the European hazelnuts (a.k.a. filberts) were grown on the west coast was to keep the tasty European trees far away from the native trees that harbor a blight known as Eastern Filbert Blight (EFB) caused by the fungus Anisogramma anomala. Also, the tender European varieties tend to be less cold tolerant and are better suited for USDA zones 7/8.
Hazel orchards in the Northwest are now slowly being decimated by EFB as the disease has spread throughout the region. Hybridization of native blight resistant hazel trees to the European hazel in North America has been documented since 1921 by Carl Weschcke. The Northern Nut Growers Association (NNGA) has been in existence for over 100 years. NNGA is a group of hobbyist and professionals that grow and breed nut trees. NNGA and similar associations such as Society of Ontario Nut Growers (SONG) have assisted with hazelnut improvement for over 94 years. In the past few years, more organizations have formed to promote hazelnut trees as a food crop throughout North America.
Hazelnut production is expanding with the Ontario Hazelnut Association that formed just a few years ago to promote hazel orchards just north and west of the New York border. Ferrero, the makers of Nutella, is a $8.8 billion dollar company, that consumes 25% of the world’s crop, has a massive factory, just over the New York border, in Brantford Ontario Canada. There is Upper Midwest Hazelnut Development Initiative (UMHDI) to develop hazelnut cultivars and orchards in Wisconsin, Michigan and surrounding area. The Hybrid Hazelnut Consortium was formed to research and promote hybrid hazelnuts utilizing Rutgers University, Oregon State University, University of Nebraska–Lincoln and the Arbor Day foundation. Support to grow hazelnut trees has expanded greatly in the last few years as new hybrid trees come to market.
From a financial standpoint, hazelnuts are an ideal specialty crop, as they are in continuous short supply and have high profit margins. Retail pricing for in-shell hazelnuts averages $6.00 a pound and shelled raw bulk hazelnuts are currently selling for $14.99 a pound in local grocery stores. The cost per pound of hazelnuts currently limits consumption. The future for increased hazelnut consumption is excellent, as Europeans consume up to eight times what an American consumes.
Hazelnuts provide a very profitable income well above what any annual grain crop can, after the necessary 6-year wait before the trees produce a significant amount of nuts. Assuming only 2000 pounds of nuts (up to 2800 lbs. should be attainable) at direct wholesale pricing of only $2.50 per pound (we currently sell for $3.50 per pound) amounts to $5000.00 per acre. In contrast, the average corn crop yields 160 bushels per acre in New York and at a current price of under $4.00 per bushel equals only $640 per acre. Hazels require similar annual input costs as corn, and organic sustainability should be readily achievable as the hazel tree is native unlike most annual crops grown.
Hazel flowers are wind-pollinated, so no bees or butterflies are needed for pollination. Hazels have separate male flowers, called catkins, that form in late summer and shed pollen early in the spring before leaves emerge. Female flowers emerge from a bud and require pollen from a second tree, because its own pollen is self-incompatible. Therefore, two pollen compatible strains of hybrid trees are planted in an orchard.
The majority of the cost to establish an orchard is in the first two years. First the field must be cleared of rocks, with pH adjusted to range from 6.5 to 7.0pH. Deer fencing for the orchard and individual tree protection is suggested. The animals find that the nut trees are tasty and the leaves, buds, and bark are readily consumed by deer, moles, voles, and mice. Protection is needed for the first three years until the tree is large enough to not be bothered by any animal. Young hazel trees need irrigation to ensure good survivability and growth, until the roots grow deep enough to not need irrigation thereafter.
Ideally, a commercial orchard will use clones of hazel trees with known characteristics. Clones of hazels are traditionally done with layering. Layering is accomplished by encouraging the shoots that are pushed up from the roots of the mother tree to grow its own roots. The shoot (a.k.a. sucker) is cut away from the mother tree and replanted on proper spacing. Sources of cloned trees are rapidly expanding using new hybrids that have proven themselves over many years of careful watching and measuring. There are numerous sources of seedling trees and a conscientious tree nursery will only use seed from the best trees. Hazelnut trees can be planting any time of year. Please verify that the trees are hybridized for many generations to help ensure your buying quality trees. Trees are available all year long and can be sourced from the following list and several other nurseries:
- Grimo Nut Nursery layered and seedling trees at http://www.grimonut.com/
- Oikos Tree Crops seedling trees at https://oikostreecrops.com/
- Z’s Nutty Ridge layered and seedling trees at http://znutty.com/
Hazelnuts offer a great opportunity for and any agricultural system from a backyard to a large farm. Different agricultural systems incorporating hazelnuts include: silvopasture, permaculture, agroforestry and woody agriculture. These systems utilize trees as an integral part of a sustainable agricultural practice. We believe this trend will continue to grow and lead both environmentally and economically over annual grain crops.
Dawn and Jeff have been growing and breeding hazelnut trees for over 23 years at Z’s Nutty Ridge LLC and can be reached at Find us at: Dawnz@znutty.com
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Office Phone: 607 756 4409