Hazelnut researcher has more questions than answers
ROSEMOUNT, Minn. — Might hazelnuts one day be a third crop in Minnesota?
"I would say a third crop, not the third crop," said Lois Braun, a University of Minnesota hazelnut researcher. Braun led a Hybrid Hazelnut Research Update Walk-n-Talk July 26 at Rosemount Research and Outreach Center.
The event was sponsored by Rural Advantage and University of Minnesota Extension.
Five hazelnut producers attended the event, all of whom are researchers themselves, experimenting with their plants and sharing what they've learned with other growers. They're eager to know what works for others and what doesn't. They're interested in learning more about propagating plants. They're investigating harvesting and processing techniques.
Dan and Nancy Johnson drove from Horace, N.D. Dan has grown hazelnuts for 30 years, doing his own crossbreeding. He monitors 260 plants and has nearly a dozen notebooks filled with observations.
Likewise, Don Price of Northfield has data on each of his 100 plants going back 15 years. He rates the plants on 50 attributes, changing five or so every year as he discovers those traits don’t matter.
"If you like plants and soil and fertilizer you could probably contribute more to this than you ever know," Price said.
He likens hazelnuts now to soybeans in the 1940s. Growing up in Indiana, they sometimes used soybeans as they would alfalfa.
"There’s just so much people don’t know about hazelnuts," he said.
Johnson agreed. People ask him if hazelnuts will grow in Minnesota or North Dakota.
It was worth it to drive four hours to meet and talk with people who have a like interest, Nancy and Dan said.
Braun plans to visit the Johnsons next month to see their hazelnuts. Dan has three bushes he wants to clone and propagate, Nancy said. They are his three best.
A few years ago, Braun said she thought the bottlenecks to growing the industry would be genetics, propagation, processing and marketing.
Those bottlenecks are being addressed quicker than she’d anticipated. Growers are developing their own equipment for processing. The University of Minnesota and University of Wisconsin have grant money to work on genetics and propagation. This fall, a graduate student will begin work on micro-propagation of hazelnuts, Braun said. This is the standard method used in Oregon and Washington, where hazelnuts are raised commercially.
In Minnesota, there are fewer than 50 known hazelnut growers, Braun said.
Perhaps the best-known hazelnut producer in Minnesota is Phil Rutter, who has researched hazelnuts at Badgersett Research Farm for nearly 20 years.
The farm near Canton has a woody agriculture field day on Aug. 18.
Rutter last year experimented with mechanically harvesting hazelnuts, the first known mechanical harvest of hazelnuts in Minnesota.
But harvesting hazelnuts is only one step in the process. Once the nuts are harvested, they must be dried with their husks on. Once dried, the husks are removed. The nut may need to dry before shelling. As the nuts dry, their flavor changes.
There are about 200 hazelnut bushes at the Rosemount Research and Outreach Center. The first were planted in 2000. The newest plot was established last fall. Braun has done research since 2003.
The plants at the research and outreach center are hybrids, Braun said, unlike the European varieties grown in Oregon and Washington.
The hazelnuts grown in Minnesota and other upper Midwestern states are crosses between European hazelnuts and native American species.
The bushes in the older plot at the research center have the genetic diversity of a litter of stray kittens, Braun said, while the plot she established last fall are selections from propagated plants.
The genetics have improved since he planted his first bushes back in the late 1990s, Price said. Poorer producing plants have been eliminated.
Braun also studies hazelnuts at the Southwest Research and Outreach Center at Lamberton, Norm Erickson’s farm at Lake City and on the St. Paul campus. There are also two research plots in Wisconsin.
Hazelnut research can be overwhelming because there are so many unknowns.
"Growers often say they don’t know what they’re looking for, neither do I," Braun said.