Norm Erickson doesn’t take offense when someone says he’s kind of nutty. In fact, he just might take that as a compliment.

Erickson, 78, has been an early and enthusiastic proponent of hazelnuts as an emerging crop for Upper Midwest landowners, and he sees strong future potential for the perennial crop. While the largest plantings may include tens of thousands of seedlings, more people all the time are incorporating a handful of hazelnut seedlings into small acreages.

“It has got possibilities,” he said. “This is a long-term project, and you have to enjoy it and the outdoors.”

Erickson and his wife, Mary, have put their money where their mouth is, launching Hazelnut Valley Farm, the second largest hazelnut orchard in Minnesota, in their retirement.

The have more than 4,000 hazelnut bushes on about a dozen acres located entirely within the city limits of Lake City, Minn. — the self-proclaimed Hazelnut Capitol of Minnesota.

Erickson says hybrid hazelnut bushes have a lot of untapped potential on the landscape, where they can serve as living snow fences, outer rows in windbreaks and food and cover for wildlife.

The oil-rich hazelnut kernels can be pressed for use in edible products, as a biodiesel source and in skincare products. People working in health care and food preparation, who frequently wash their hands, love hazelnut oil, Erickson said, because it absorbs quickly and doesn’t leave a greasy residue.

The kernels, both raw and dry roasted, are high in unsaturated fats, protein, vitamins and minerals and considered a gourmet food and can be used in cereal, breads, muffins and more.

“Most people eat them straight up,” Erickson said. “They like to swim in chocolate or fudge over ice cream or in salads. (People) like them over hot cereal.”

Erickson, an IBM retiree, said he first became interested in hazelnut production during the energy crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. He said he’s always had a keen interest in forestry, owning a tree farm near Pine Island, Minn., for many years.

“I kind of grew up in the woods,” he said. “When I bought it, the idea was that I’d have someplace to work and teach my kids about work.”

He began giving presentations about energy to church and service groups around the Rochester, Minn., area. He also wrote a regular column about energy and environmental issues such as climate change for the local newspaper.

A member of the local Izaak Walton League, he was turned on to hazelnuts after hearing a talk by Phil Rutter of Badgersett Research Corp.

“It dovetailed with my interests at the time,” Erickson said, adding that he was intrigued by the possibility of a farm producing its own biodiesel from hazelnut oil. Hazelnut kernels contain more than 60 percent oil.

However, as the price pressure came off of fuels, interest in extracting the high-value hazelnut oil for diesel fuel waned, he said.

“Production isn’t near what it would need to be to be of economical interest,” he said.

Instead, the Ericksons sell the oil in skincare products for some $25 per two fluid ounces. They also sell seedlings and dry roasted hazelnuts. Considered a gourmet food, a 5½ ounce bottle sells for $10, and a one-pound bag goes for $18.

The couple harvest more than a ton of in-shell hazelnuts annually, and if a stroke hadn’t left him partially disabled several years ago, Erickson says he’d grow more.

He rents out about six acres of his 30-acre farm to a neighboring farmer for raising non-genetically modified corn.

But “if I was younger, I’d probably put them into hazelnuts, too,” he said. “The worst thing about it is I can’t do a hot polka anymore.”

Nuts for nuts

Hazelnuts aren’t new to the Upper Midwest. Certain types native to the area still can be found growing in the wild. Large stands exist in northern Minnesota and in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin.

“The bluffs above Red Wing (Minn.) were covered in hazelnuts before the white settlers arrived,” Erickson said.

Erickson said his dry roasted hazelnuts often resonate with older people who recall picking hazelnuts as a child growing up on their family farm. Many customers are “just ecstatic” to find locally sourced hazelnuts, he said.

“They can’t believe they grow here. They taste so good. They say ‘Where have you been?’” he said. “They’re delighted to find them in the market.”

Hazelnut Valley Farm is not licensed for wholesale but relies on direct sales at farm stands and farmers’ markets, where they seldom face competition from other nut vendors. Last weekend, for the first time, the farm exhibited at the FEAST! Local Foods Marketplace in Rochester, Minn.

“People are really tickled about it,” Erickson said. “It’s a treat to be able to give that to people.”

Erickson said the market for hazelnut products is strong, and he sells out quickly each year.

“Last year, we didn’t go to market at all; we were buried” (with orders), he said. “We could sell everything.”

Hybrid hazelnut plants are comparable to lilac bushes, according to Erickson, as both will reinvigorate and “reinvent themselves” over time. Plants grown in this region are open-pollinated.

He planted his first native American hazelnut bushes in 2004 and picked the first crop three years later. By the fifth or sixth year, as bushes grow taller and bear more, he said, there should be quite a few nuts ready to sell.

The Erickson orchard features a winter-hardy type developed in this area by researchers. They select their stock from the best-performing bushes of each year’s hazelnut production, removing poor producers and adding new seedlings.

“This is the old-fashioned way of improving your genetic pool,” Erickson said.

He said the future for hazelnut production in the Upper Midwest looks bright, with university researchers such as Lois Braun at the University of Minnesota and Jason Fischbach with UW-Extension performing trials.

Braun has been visiting larger plantings across Minnesota as part of an effort to create clones of the best plants. She also coordinates performance trials at about a half-dozen sites in Minnesota and Wisconsin, in different microclimates and on varying soil types.

“The idea is to find the best of the best and then micropropagate them,” Erickson said. “They’re trying to catch up to (Oregon State University).”

Fischbach will discuss new opportunities growing hazelnuts during the Resilient Farms Conference Tuesday, Dec. 11, at the Wilderness Resort in Wisconsin Dells.

The biggest challenges to Upper Midwest hazelnut production include low production per bush and labor-intensive processing, according to Erickson.

Processing can be tedious as the nuts are small and vary in size and shape; shell thickness and characteristics also make it difficult.

Another stumbling block is the high cost of seedlings, according to Erickson, and depending on the site, tender seedlings could suffer rabbit or deer damage. Then, after they’re established, it could be as many as six years before a grower sees a return on their investment.

“Genetics aren’t where they should be,” he said. “It will be better in a decade with more mature genetics and more predictable growing characteristics and higher production.”

Once established, hazelnuts are relatively low maintenance, with no need for spraying or pruning. They also face few issues related to disease or pests. Erickson said he actually likes some blight in the orchard to help him better select plants for propagation.

“I don’t select anything with low resistance,” he said. “I want blight-resistant seedlings. It doesn’t kill them; it just takes out a stem or two here and there.”

In many ways, the Ericksons were in on the ground floor of the hazelnut industry here. After finding that processing equipment used for hazelnuts on the West Coast and in Italy doesn’t work well on Midwestern nuts, Erickson built his own, modifying it many times through the years.

He has high expectations for his newest nutcracker, which he says “will be like a miracle.”

“If this one works really good, I will have a number of them made in an attempt to sell them,” he said. “None out there are up to where they need to be.”

He recently bought a harvester in partnership with a couple other area growers.

Erickson said the hazelnut industry is much more mature in Oregon, and their orchards look much different. Growers there rake nuts into a windrow on the ground, treating them with an anti-bacterial agent to prevent salmonella contamination.

But “ours never touch the ground,” he said. “We pick them off a bush.”

The hazelnuts are picked as whole clusters, and each cluster can yield between one and a dozen nuts, he said. The picker shakes the cluster off the bush, then they drop onto a conveyor and into totes. From there, the nuts are put into mesh bags and dried for a couple months.

This year’s harvest took place in September. Erickson said he harvests hazelnuts twice per year — once when he notices leaves turning color and again a week or two later. During that initial harvest, he runs the picker at low velocity so immature clusters can continue maturing.

As this year’s harvest dries, Erickson continues to market the last of the 2017 crop. Soon, he’ll crack a few new nuts to dry and weigh them, aiming for less than 5 percent moisture.

After cracking hazelnuts, the yield from the kernels is only about 25 percent, Erickson said. There’s a lot of waste from the process, in the form of shells and husks, and he hopes to find a good use for those materials.