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Hazelnut Crop Off, But Farmers Keep Faith

Oregon has many agricultural claims to fame. The state is the top grower of Christmas trees and grass seed, and makes millions of dollars a year selling peppermint, spearmint, and hops. Ethan Lindsey reports on another famed Oregon crop that may be seeing a down year this year, and for years to come.

For all practical purposes, Oregon is the only state in the country that grows hazelnuts. That's $30 million in nuts sold worldwide, every year, from the Willamette Valley.

But all is not well in the land of the filbert.

Rich Birkemeier: “There's several things we look for. The general health of the tree, and when its yellow and deteriorating, its had it for several years. Its life cycle has terminated with those spores, which is how its spread, on the wind, with windblown spores.”

Rich Birkmeier lives in Canby, 20 miles south of Portland. He's grown hazelnuts here since 1962.

Standing in front of a blue farmhouse, he looks out upon his hazelnut field, planted in orderly rows hundreds of trees deep. For the most part, his crop is healthy.

But every 30 feet or so, there's a bright yellow, dying bush. Eastern filbert blight is killing off his crops, one-by-one.

He grabs one of the sick trees with a red-and-white flag taped to its branch.

Rich Birkemeier: “This one is a moderately resistant variety. (branch snaps) You can't hear it, but you can see the dead wood. And the pests that form when the fungus sporalates.”

Ethan Lindsey: "I'm not gonna catch the eastern blight, am I?"

Rich Birkemeier: "It won't hurt you — you're not a plant. This is a very specific fungal disease that only affects hazelnut."

So every time a tree starts to die, Birkemeier takes it out of the ground and plants a new hybrid tree, grown and developed at Oregon State University. The hybrid trees are immune to the virus.

Just down the way from Birkemeier, Cheryl Nelson owns Bountiful Farms in Woodburn. She used to grow 120 acres of hazelnuts, and says she fondly remembers how the trees looked and smelled.

But the spread of blight, and the relatively low financial return she got on the hazelnuts, forced her to shift all 500 acres of her farm to ornamental plants and shrubs.

Growers say demand for hazelnuts hasn't dropped.

75% of the world's hazelnuts are grown in Turkey. And foodies and chefs still value the nut's sweet, mild flavor for all sorts of candies, cookies, or spices. But the spreading blight disease has made growing the trees in Oregon an annual gamble.

This year, the US Department of Agriculture estimates the state's hazelnut production will total about 33,000 tons. That's 23% lower than last year's crop of 43,000 tons.

Even before the disease showed up, growing hazelnuts was a crapshoot.

Between the years 1992 and 2003, harvests fluctuated wildly, sometimes more than 20%year-upon-year. And no one knows why.

Rich Birkemeier: “If I was smart enough to answer that question, I wouldn't be growing filberts. But we really don't know.”

Polly Owen is the manager of the Hazelnut Marketing Board. She says the yearly fluctuation that growers began to expect may actually be shrinking these days — thanks in part to the blight.

The immune trees seem to be less moody.

Polly Owen: “If you actually look at a chart, we can see a couple of years ago we went from very very wide swings, into a year where we had an up year, followed by another up year. So what we're seeing now is those swings have been mitigated quite a bit.”

At her office in Aurora, Owen is hosting the annual meeting of the Hazelnut Marketing Board on Thursday. The growers meet in August, because the nuts are typically harvested in early September.

As leaves on trees turn brown, hazelnuts begin to fall. And the growers wait for hundreds of nuts to pile up underfoot.

Rich Birkemeier: “When they're ripe they'll fall on their own. And they're just now beginning to fall. And they'll fall over the next six weeks. Usually two machines are used, the first is the sweeper, it sweeps it away from the tree into the center of the row, and then the harvester comes along and picks them all up.”

Then the nuts are divided into two camps. Bigger, heartier nuts are mostly used for cracking and eating by themselves. The smaller nuts are mostly used for making spices and for flavoring things like coffee.

People used to mostly buy the larger nuts, but consumer preference is shifting.

Polly Owen: “We are also seeing people like Starbucks and Au Bon Pain introducing hazelnut items.”

But the market isn't just changing in terms of what the nuts are used for. Customers are also changing.

For decades, German chocolate makers bought the lion's share for use in candies.

But about 5 years ago, Germany was displaced as the world's number one consumer of hazelnuts. And now this year, the Germans are third, Vietnam is second, and China consumes more hazelnuts than any other country.

Rich Birkemeier: "They have a stack of dollars over there that they've gotten from Wal-Mart that has to come back to this country in one way or another, so they buy hazelnuts. They have a growing class of people that wants to consume and eat different types of foods.”

Owen, with the hazelnut industry group, thinks some of the growers who abandoned the market in the past decade may now come back.

Polly Owen: “You also have a decline in acreage overall, because in the last few years people haven't been ready to plant. They may be growing something else right now. But we believe that in the future we're gonna see growth in the acreage.”

And that's why Birkemeier says he isn't getting out of the business, like some other growers he knows.

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