Value-adding key to success in hazelnuts

More for the money | Growers turn hazelnuts into flour or oil or cover them in chocolate

AGASSIZ, B.C. — Eastern filbert blight is decimating hazelnut orchards on both sides of the Canadian-U.S. border, dramatically lowering yields and leaving producers with few control options.

Fraser Valley grower Pentti Hanninen’s last harvest was one-tenth of normal production at his Canadian Hazelnut business because of the spotted blight.

A tree normally produces about 25 pounds of nuts.

Hanninen has 30 acre orchards in Agassiz and Chilliwack, where he produces hazelnuts for processing into confections, flour, oil and butter.

Challenge is nothing new to Hanninen, who lost part of his right arm in a harvester.

The retired airline pilot has also been challenged by regulators who questioned his business’s farm 
status.

They scrutinized his flying hours versus his farming hours and told the family not to install a swimming pool on their land.

“What has that got to do with farming?” he said.

To abide by the rules, he flew less and worked on the farm more. Eleven years ago, he took up farming full time.

For his latest challenge, Hanninen has tried heavy pruning and replanting with different varieties, but the orchard that began seeing blight five years ago continues its downward spiral. He estimated the valley has 1,000 acres in hazelnuts.

“It affects yield, not quality.”

Hanninen said it’s still a good business, even with less product.

He said current demand outstrips supply, noting he has to buy product from other growers to make up the shortfall.

“The product (yield) is poor, the market is fantastic,” he said. “If I had 10 times what I have here, I could make a call and it would be all gone.”

Almonds remain the most harvested nut worldwide, followed by ca-shews, walnuts and hazelnuts.

Oregon has 40,000 acres in hazelnuts, which is three percent of worldwide production, and 95 percent of North American production. It has weathered this disease challenge for more years than Canada.

“We’ve been able to ride their coattails on their work and get new varieties they have,” Hanninen said.

Jay Pscheidt, a plant pathology specialist at Oregon State University, said the university has released at least six cultivars resistant to the blight.

A mass replanting is taking place in the Pacific Northwest region on as many as 3,000 acres.

“They’re in high demand and in short supply and are expensive at this point,” he said, noting that the new varieties took 16 years to breed and will take up to five years to be fully productive.

The disease progression can be slowed in mature orchards through vigilant disease scouting, hard pruning of diseased limbs showing cankers one to three feet below the diseased tissue and burning or finely chipping the wood.

A blight-infected orchard of Ennis trees will die within eight years while diligent management could double its remaining life. The Barcelona variety seems to survive a little longer.

“That’s not very good,” Pscheidt said. “Susceptible cultivars are not going to be the future of the hazelnut industry.”

He said piling wood on the ground is not an option because spores can be shed 60 feet downwind.

“Nothing can remove the cankers short of a pruning saw,” said Pscheidt.

Commercial and organic copper-based fungicides are available but need to be applied every two weeks during the susceptible eight week period starting from bud break. It means about four applications.

He said the problem was first noticed in the United States around 1960 and may have come in on infected nursery stock. An ornamental hazelnut tree is highly susceptible to this blight, he added.

Trees at Canadian Hazelnut pollinate in January, with harvest running from October to December. Nuts fall to the ground and are swept into rows that are picked up by a combine-like harvester.

They are run through a processing plant that can handle 6,000 pounds of nuts an hour. It cleans, sorts and dries them in a grain dryer before they are further processed for the on-farm store and farmers markets.

Marketing is done through bcfarmfresh, self-guided driving tours of farms in the region and word of mouth.

“You have to do it a little bit differently and believe in what you’re doing and just make it happen,” Hanninen said about growing specialty crops.

He said money can be made in processed goods, and his business plan has always been to add value rather than sell the raw commodity.

“I could go sell a nut for $1 just to get rid of it, but if I value add until it’s worth $5, it’s harder to sell. I try to take what I have in the field and put some value on it,” he said.

“If we had gone another way, it wouldn’t have worked.”

In the early years, he and his wife, Deborah, who is in charge of quality control in the shop, hit the road to visit restaurants, bakers and chocolatiers before creating their own distribution network for their organic production.

“I want to sell a box at a time, not a pallet,” he said.

Hanninen employs 11 workers and is assisted by Deborah, and her son, Kasey. The senior Hanninens live at the Chilliwack orchard and use their airline pass to travel the world each winter.

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