It’s barely a blip on the landscape, but hybrid hazelnuts are finding a place as a fledgling crop in the Midwest.
The pea-sized nuts, also known as filberts, are native to the eastern half of the U.S. and grow on bushes but are too small to be commercially viable. But plant breeders have been crossing two U.S. varieties with the larger dime-sized European hazelnut that grows on trees. The result is a cold-hardy hybrid beginning to show promise.
Linda Meschke, president and founder of the nonprofit Rural Advantage, said hybrid hazelnuts are one of several “third crops” (besides corn and soybeans) that farmers can grow to increase income and improve the environment. Her organization, based in Fairmont, promotes interconnections between farming, ecology and community.
The hybrid hazelnuts are perennials with an extensive root system that protects the soil from eroding, she said.
“It would be an excellent crop to grow in buffer areas because of the stream bank protection,” she said. “They also provide food for wildlife.”
The hybrids have relatively few diseases or pest enemies, she said, making it easier to grow them organically if the right fertilizers are used.
Nearly all of the world’s supply is the European variety, which are the hazelnuts usually found in nut mixes and spreads and are also grown in the Pacific Northwest.
But Meschke estimates about 100 farmers are growing the hybrid hazelnuts in Minnesota. There are probably a similar number of growers in Wisconsin, she said, and several dozen in Iowa and northeastern Illinois. The bushes typically average 6 to 8 feet in diameter and 10 to 12 feet in height.
Most producers process their own hazelnuts, Meschke said, and use them at home or sell them at farmers markets. The nuts are popular as a nutritious snack food, she said, and also can be used as a flour substitute for gluten-free meals. Hazelnut oil is similar to olive oil and contains about 70 percent monounsaturated fats, she said, and is valued for its lightness, flavor and long shelf life.
Meschke also is part of a small grower-owned company in southwest Wisconsin that is scaling up the processing of hazelnuts. About a dozen producers in November 2014 launched the American Hazelnut Company, located at the Kickapoo Culinary Center in Gays Mills, south of La Crosse.
Center manager Brad Niemcek said that hybrid hazelnuts are a good fit for his organization, which is a food business incubator that rents space to entrepreneurs in need of a licensed kitchen.
“Under the food code in most states, when you crack a [nut] shell you are processing food, so you have to do it in a licensed facility,” he said. “The whole idea was to create a processing and marketing operation that could buy and shell nuts from growers and put them on the marketplace.”
Niemcek said hybrid hazelnuts are still years away from large-scale commercial development, but have the potential for success.
“We’re lucky enough to be producing something with a flavor that the whole world seems to love,” he said. “And a lot of people have instant respect for the whole idea of doing something that doesn’t use chemicals or poison the land or create runoff.”
One downside of hybrid hazelnuts, Niemcek said, is that it takes three years for the bushes to produce any nuts and eight years to realize full yields. As a result of the time lag, he said, processing at the culinary center has been modest in the past two years but is expected to grow significantly in the near future.
Those most interested in buying the nuts, flour and oil have been chefs, bakers and confectioners, Niemcek said. The hybrid hazelnuts also have been used in salad oil and skin-care products, he said, and in nut butters similar to Nutella, the brand name of the sweetened hazelnut and cocoa spread manufactured in Italy.
Lois Braun, a research associate at the University of Minnesota who studies hazelnuts, said the shrubs are an excellent choice for planting as windbreaks to reduce winter heating costs, as shelterbelts to protect livestock or crops from strong winds and as living snow fences to reduce drifts along highways. They are especially useful in places with highly sloping terrain, Braun said, such as southeastern Minnesota.
“They have potential for adding profit to land that is either not suitable for row crop agriculture or which is highly vulnerable to erosion or water quality issues,” she said.
Braun said that the U became interested in hybrid hazelnuts nearly 10 years ago as part of its “Forever Green” initiative. The program researches the potential of new crops that can diversify economic opportunities for farmers while using the land in a sustainable way.
“I encourage people to plant hazelnuts if they are interested in moving the concept forward, and if they recognize that they’re not likely to make a lot of money off them,” Braun said. “They will be contributing to the development of a new crop.