EAU CLAIRE — The hazelnut is loaded with potential. Jason Fischbach, Extension agriculture agent for Ashland and Bayfield counties, is among those tasked with unlocking that potential in the Upper Midwest; no small task, considering it includes building an industry nearly from scratch.

On March 8-9, Fischbach hosted the 10th annual Upper Midwest Hazelnut Growers Conference in Eau Claire, providing about 100 attendees with information on how to grow, harvest and sell hazelnuts and offering updates on hazelnut research and development projects taking place in the Upper Midwest and beyond.

“It’s rare to have a new crop like this,” Fischbach said. “But if we can pull it off, the payout should be significant.”

Since helping organize the Upper Midwest Hazelnut Development Initiative in 2007 to help Midwest hazelnut growers build an industry, Fischbach and other researchers, growers and breeders have been working to develop commercially viable hazelnut cultivars suitable to the region; provide education and technical assistance for growers; and help establish a system for hazelnut processing, market development and capitalization.

“It’s been a big project, and it’s been a slow project,” Fischbach said. “There was a big flurry of activity early on, and we’ve been trying to build a program to meet the industry’s needs.”

At the inception of the Upper Midwest Hazelnut Development Initiative, Fischbach partnered with Lois Braun, a research scientist at the University of Minnesota, and they began looking for improved varieties of hazelnuts that could work in the cold winters of the Upper Midwest.

Braun’s initial interest in hazelnuts came from the potential the plant has to prevent nutrient runoff.

“One of the things that makes perennial crops so beneficial in terms of reducing pollutants is that they’re very good at holding on to nutrients,” Braun said. “Every year when you see those autumn leaves turning color, what’s happening is those nitrogenous compounds in the leaves are being withdrawn from the leaves into the stems of the plants, the trunks, the root systems to be stored over winter and used again the next year.”

Fischbach has helped secure almost $500,000 in grant funding that has been put toward screening wild populations of American hazelnut for potential domestication and developing mechanical harvesting options and enterprising budget tools.

Certain types of hazelnuts are native to the Upper Midwest, and large stands exist in northern Minnesota and in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin.

Ninety-nine percent of hazelnuts grown in the U.S. are grown in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, which has a Zone 8 climate, Fischbach said. Oregon growers have added almost 40,000 acres in the last five years. Total U.S. hazelnut production is about 90 million pounds.

But because the European hazelnut is not hardy in the Upper Midwest, Fischbach and Braun began looking to both the wild American hazelnut growing in Minnesota and Wisconsin and to farmers growing hybrid hazelnuts that are offspring from crosses between American hazelnut and European hazelnut for a plant that would have success in this climate.

Fischbach and Braun were able to propagate the best plants from these sources and evaluate them side by side in replicated performance trials across the Upper Midwest. The top 12 performers of these seedlings are expected to be available to growers as cultivars starting in 2020.

“The question for growers now is, ‘What should I grow?’ “ Fischbach said. “The next step is for growers to start growing these, and we need to do more performance trials. But the good news is we have stuff to choose from now, and we never did before.”

Telling their story

Most hazelnuts are grown in Turkey and Italy, which, along with Germany, are also among the top hazelnut-consuming countries. American consumption of hazelnuts is growing thanks to products like Nutella, a chocolate-hazelnut spread that accounts for about 40 percent of the world’s hazelnut supply. Brands like Jif and Smucker’s are launching their own Nutella-like chocolate-hazelnut spreads for U.S. markets.

The market growth and the establishment of better-performing hazelnut plants are coming together at the right time for Upper Midwest growers, Fischbach said.

“We’re gearing up outreach and education and preparing for another wave of interest,” he said. “The market appears to be coming together at the perfect time.”

Hazelnut kernels can be pressed for use in edible products, as a biodiesel source and in skincare products. The kernels are high in unsaturated fats, protein, vitamins and minerals and considered a gourmet food; can be used in cereal, breads and muffins; and can be eaten both raw and dry roasted.

The American hazelnut cross plants typically grown in the Midwest produce a small kernel, but growers rave about the taste.

“Consumers do love hazelnuts,” said Connie Carlson of U of M Extension’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships effort. “People like how they taste, and our hazelnuts taste even better. We have a really great flavor story to tell.”

Carlson said the Midwest grower-owned American Hazelnut Co. is having some success marketing its products, which include raw kernels and hazelnut flour, and hazelnut oil is seeing some success focusing on gourmet oil stores.

“Once people taste the oil, it’s not hard to convince them to pick up a bottle,” Carlson said. “We’re seeing the gourmet oil stores as an opportunity to spread our message.”

Mike Lilja of the American Hazelnut Co. said that the oil contains about 10 percent hazelnuts from the Upper Midwest, but that percentage will grow as the industry expands. He said buyers aren’t deterred by the inclusion of Oregon hazelnuts in the oil.

“Consumers appreciate the fact that there is local content in the oil,” Lilja said. “When we explain the situation that there’s not enough local nuts yet, they’re very accepting. They understand that it’s a growing industry.”

“It is really a unique oil,” said food writer Beth Dooley, author of several cookbooks focusing on food local in the Upper Midwest. “As a cook, it’s very much like what has happened with olive oil, where oils from different areas have different flavors. There’s a lot of value as we message this out around the difference between our nuts and the ones that are coming from Oregon that aren’t nearly as tasty as this.”

Up and running

Fischbach recommended anyone looking to get into the industry take a look at the research and talk to someone currently raising hazelnuts.

“Every farm is going to be a little bit different as far as what you have to do for weed control, for moisture management, for planting,” Fischbach said. “It depends on what type of equipment you have, it depends on your soil type, it depends on your weed pressures.”

The growing season in Oregon allows growers there to rake nuts into a windrow on the ground, treating them with an antibacterial agent to prevent salmonella contamination. In the Upper Midwest, hazelnuts are picked directly off the bush as whole clusters. Each cluster can yield up to a dozen nuts. Clusters are then bagged and dried for a couple of months.

Fischbach said it can be expensive to get into the industry, but once hazelnut stands are established and producing, the industry can become profitable.

Because the Upper Midwest doesn’t yet have large commercial plantings established, Fischbach said economic projections are, at best, a guess, but growers shouldn’t expect a positive cash flow until after year four, when the plants are closer to peak production.

“What’s the other raging, new crop that everyone in Wisconsin and the Midwest is excited about right now? Hemp,” Fischbach said. “Why’s hemp such a great crop to get excited about? Because you can plant it in the spring and harvest it in the fall.

“It doesn’t work like that with hazelnuts. You put all these plants in the ground, all your money in the ground, and you’re not going to get production until year four. It’s not any different from apples or blueberries, but for those who are new to hazelnut production, that’s an economic reality you’re going to have to be prepared for.”