Hazelnut coffee, candies and creamers have lined grocery store and specialty shop shelves for many years and with research underway at Horning State Farm in Plattsmouth, local ag producers may someday be adding these delightful nuts to their traditional crops.
Although hazelnut plants grow in Nebraska, their nut tends to be small and subject to Eastern Filbert Blight in early spring. “Flowering occurs in late February and into the spring when buds are susceptible to pollination. They are also susceptible to Eastern Blight spores and develop cankers in the bark, which eventually girdle the plant and kill it,” said Andrew Zahn, Nebraska Forestry Service hazelnut technician.
NFS owns Horning State Farm and has 10 acres in it devoted to hazelnut cultivars in hopes of developing varieties that produce plants resistant to blight with large, tasty nuts similar to those grown in Oregon, New Jersey and throughout Europe.
NFS’s research began nearly 20 years ago. “The forestry service started evaluating hazelnuts at University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s East Campus in 2000,” Zahn explained. “The first ones were planted at Horning State Farm around 2009. There is also a plot at UN-L.”
NFS is part of a consortium studying hazelnut production with Rutgers University in Brunswick, N.J.; Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore.; and Arbor Day Foundation (ADF) in Nebraska City, Neb.
ADF planted a hazelnut research plot behind Lied Conference Center in Nebraska City 24 years ago. Together, the four entities have been working to derive a hazelnut cultivar that withstands Nebraska’s extreme winter and summer temperatures and is resistant to Eastern Filbert Blight.
“We’re about a year from releasing two, possibly three cultivars that have resisted Eastern Filbert Blight,” Zahn said.
The two most likely to be released are Gran Traverse and The Beast. “Gran Traverse has Turkish hazelnut tree genetics like European hazelnuts,” Zahn explained. “The Beast is 75 percent European hazelnut. These cultivars are hardy in the winter in terms of flowering and pollination. They are resistant to the Eastern Filbert Blight, which is one of the most important aspects of this research.”
The Beast produces large nuts within a shell that’s easily cracked. They are nice plants and produce a medium-sized nut. “We were in meetings at Rutgers this summer. The Beast is a very large plant and has been resistant to Eastern Filbert Blight for 12 years in New Jersey. The Gran Traverse isn’t as high in production but you need another cultivar. The Gran Traverse is more of the pollenizer for The Beast. Pollenizers are the source of pollen.”
So far there hasn’t been any commercial cultivation of hazelnuts east of Oregon. “The oldest hazelnut tree in Oregon was planted in 1889,” Zahn said. “In Oregon, they only have had to deal with one strain of Eastern Filbert Blight and the nuts in Oregon are larger than the ones we grow here. Here, on the farm, we try to expose various cultivars to various blight pressures. Ones that don’t end up getting it obviously have some quantitative resistance to it.”
In Oregon, producers apply fungicides to stop the blight. “It’s cost effective in Oregon but it would not be cost effective here. We have different strain of blight here. It is an ongoing process of evaluation,” Zahn said.
Hazelnut plants are perennials and fairly easy to maintain if resistant to blight. “The first few years are really important in terms of irrigating them. They like deep soil with a medium texture. They don’t like land high in clay content, because they don’t like to sit in wet soil. Once established, they don’t need much,” Zahn said. “Weed control is really important.”
It takes between six and eight years before they start producing nuts, but they remain productive for up to 50 years. “They are also drought-tolerant once established,” he said.
Although deer don’t chew on the hazelnut leaves, they do love the nuts. “They are good for animal habitat. A farmer or rancher or even a homeowner could get hazelnuts from the Natural Resource District that would be good for a lower tier or shelter belt,” he said.
If the blight issues can be addressed, hazelnut bushes or trees could prove a valuable alternative crop in Nebraska. Hazelnuts are used in a variety of products. “The demand for hazelnuts is bottomless at this point,” Zahn said. “They are highly nutritious and a rich source of protein, Vitamin E, foliates and B vitamins. They have a high oil content, between 50-70 percent, in the kernels. Their profile is nearly identical to olive oil.”
Zahn said the nuts can be pressed to produce hazelnut oil. “You can use it as cooking oil, but it’s an expensive oil. It could prove to be a value-added product for producers.”
As for human consumption, Zahn said these filberts taste better if roasted or boiled. “Some people say that filbert used to mean ‘full beard.’ They were named after St. Filbert’s Day. During harvest time in August and September, the hazelnut in its husk sort of looks like a beard.”
NFS is hopeful that its research will eventually produce a hazelnut bush or tree that will grow well in Nebraska. “Breeders in New jersey and Oregon found a good tree. We start with those as seedlings. We grow a lot of seeds. As the years go by, we’re looking to see if those resulting plants develop symptoms of the blight,” Zahn said.
Research still needs to be conducted before they can be grown commercially on large scale in Nebraska.
“In Nebraska, to begin with, it will be more of a farmer’s market item. Once we’ve improved and demonstrated that farmers can grow them successfully in Nebraska, then we can look at bigger commercial markets.”