The Shell Shock: Saving Oregon’s Hazelnuts
Oregon’s hazelnut farmers have been waging a slow war against a deadly blight for two decades. Now science has saved the trees, but can the industry save the orchards?
Saving Oregon's Hazelnut Industry
My first encounter with the disease that would forever alter my family’s Willamette Valley farm—and many like it—came on a cold December morning nine years ago, as I trudged through the winter’s calf-high grass thick with rain. A gunmetal gray mist hung around my stepfather and me as we strolled through our 65-acre hazelnut orchard, catching up about life and work.
The trees rose around us like a greeting party of family elders. My parents had moved onto the land in 1967, six years before I was born; the orchard, then some 50 years old, was one of about 650 independent, family-owned Oregon hazelnut farms. At the time, it was overgrown. With the help of friends and neighbors, my folks turned it around.
One hundred feet from the back door of our farmhouse, the orchard unfolded up toward the lung-swelling incline we’d always called “The Hill.” From the top, the trees’ tunnels of olive green and black gave way to panoramas of the northern Willamette Valley’s wineries and other orchards.
It’s a million-dollar view in more ways than the cliché: 99 percent of America’s hazelnuts are grown here, a harvest worth $90 million annually for Oregon. On that December morning, as we neared the back hill rows, my stepfather’s mood turned grave. The quiet padding of feet through grass became a noisy crackle as we snapped through a carpet of dead limbs. My stepfather stopped and pointed up high in the trees, to similar branches—thin, blackened, cringing. “I’m afraid we have the blight,” he said. “Eastern filbert blight.”
I eyed him and the trees for signs this was as bad as it sounded. His pained expression said it was.
“We’re doing what we can to control it, but it will eventually kill everything,” he said. “It’s all over the place. Everybody is getting it, and it’s spreading. We may have to take out the whole orchard.”
My chest turned to stone as I accepted what he was saying. Our orchard ... gone. Perhaps the entire valley’s trees.
We stood there for a few moments, saying nothing.
For my family, hazelnuts were an integral part of Oregon living. Although we did not depend on them exclusively for income, they helped support the farm and family, and we all grew up gathering, sorting, and drying the annual crop, even taking days off from school to work in our old dusty barn. Like many growers, we sold to a co-op. In a typical year, we could pull 60 to 100 tons of hazelnuts off our land—a harvest, depending on the world market, worth between $20,000 and $100,000, before operational costs, which are significant. But we were just one small player in a drama that’s been unfolding since the early 1980s. With more than 37,000 acres planted, hazelnuts are an essential part of Oregon’s agricultural economy, ranking 13th in value for crops in the state.
As the hazelnut (also known as a filbert) has enjoyed a new prominence—nationally as a protein, fiber, iron, phosphorus, and vitamin E–rich addition to everything from salads to cereal, and regionally as a delicate, cholesterol-free condiment to encrust fresh trout, sprinkle over ice cream, or blend into rich tortes—the blight striking my family’s orchard has been wreaking havoc across the entire industry. For decades what little notice the media took of the growing disaster was mostly in the trade press and the occasional down-page story in the newspaper. Then early this year a slate of articles heralded a hero in the fight against the blight: Shawn Mehlenbacher, an Oregon State University researcher, and the new strain of tree he developed, dubbed Jefferson, after the US president.
But as the still uncertain fate of my family’s orchard attests, there are many more factors than the blight affecting the Willamette Valley’s hazelnut tradition, from rising Chinese and Chilean production (possibly bad for local growers) to local climate change (possibly good). For while the life cycles of trees are long, so too, it turns out, is the road to their rescue.
IF you have ever eaten a hazelnut, you know their salvation is urgent business. The rich, distinct flavor is a chef’s and diner’s joy, transcendent with chocolate (as Nutella fans well know), ideal with many cheeses and Mediterranean sun-dried tomatoes, or simply eaten alone, with a supple, satisfying crunch and nutty-sweet taste that lasts long on the palate.
“They’re one of the ingredients that defines the Northwest, and Portland in particular,” says Scott Dolich, chef-owner of Portland’s acclaimed Park Kitchen and Bent Brick restaurants. “If you’re going to create a fall menu that’s locally sourced, you couldn’t create it without them.” More important, not all hazelnuts are created equal. Oregon’s are simply bigger, and arguably richer and more delicious, than those in other places. On the world hazelnut market, they are the favored nut, devoured by the truckload by people in Germany, Venezuela, and Israel, but mostly by the Chinese, who import 60 percent of Oregon’s crop. Unfortunately, Oregon’s trees also are the kind favored by Eastern filbert blight.
Like many serial killers, Eastern filbert blight (also known as EFB) has a penchant for a particular type of victim—in this case Ennis, Daviana, Casina, and Barcelona, some of the varietals of hazelnut tree first planted in Oregon in 1903 by a gentleman farmer named George Dorris, with his wife, Lulu. More than half of the US industry’s trees—including my own family’s and those of the entire Willamette Valley—can trace their parentage back to the sleepy Dorris Ranch, now on the National Register of Historic Places. Unfortunately, the Dorrises’ first plantings were genetically prone to a blight similar to the type that erased America’s chestnut industry early in the 20th century. (Around 1900, Cryphonectria parasitica, or chestnut blight, was discovered on the East Coast. By 1940 nearly every American chestnut tree was dead—a horticultural holocaust of nearly 4 billion trees.)
EFB is spread by spores, which are emitted from blight cankers during prolonged periods of wetness. The spores infect the tree during bud break, when the tender new growth gives the killer a path into the tree’s vascular system, like a deadly human virus finding an open wound. As the blight settles in trees, it ruthlessly chokes them off limb by limb. If not aggressively pruned well below the infection point, the entire tree becomes infected. But in the bigger picture, it’s often too late: the airborne fungus has a two-year life cycle, so by the time anyone detects it, the spores have multiplied and are already riding the winds miles away into neighboring orchards.
The blight arrived in the Northwest in the early 1960s, likely via a single infected plant from a nursery in the northeastern United States. In 1968, a Vancouver-area farmer detected EFB in his orchard but failed to report it. By 1975, 200 square miles of Washington orchards had been infected,
beyond any hope for containment. In the early 1980s, it reached an Oregon orchard near Damascus, outside of Gresham, realizing scientists’ worst fears: EFB pathogens had arrived in the nation’s hazelnut heart. What unfolded over the next 20 years would push Oregon growers and some of the world’s top plant scientists to the brink.
“Sorry about the dirt,” says Shawn Mehlenbacher, reaching out an earth-stained hand to greet recent visitors to Oregon State University’s Smith Horticultural Research Farm—his unofficial office—just outside of Corvallis. Calloused, cracked, and dirty, his hands are those of a laborer, not a lecturer. “I really can’t get it off,” he continues. “At harvest time, I just give up.”
Mehlenbacher wears Levis and a well-kept work coat, and speaks with the measured diction of a scientist. Even normal conversation is peppered with plant-speak. His directions to the research farm, for example, are rooted in horticulture: “left before the hop yard ... left before the big trees ... park on the grass.”
It’s understandable, for the trim, watchful man with mirthful eyes and a gray mustache has spent the better part of his five decades with his hands in the earth. Raised south of Rochester, New York, on a farm that grew oats, wheat, potatoes, and a handful of seed crops, Mehlenbacher learned early the hard labor—and hardship—that goes into farming. “I’m one of five children,” he says as he stops at the edge of a test orchard. “Every day after school, we were out there working until 6, and all day Saturday ... and in the summer it was pretty much 10 hours a day.” The farm’s gone now, but while collecting nuts during harvest Mehlenbacher still sits on his grandfather’s hand-built stool, a battered green and orange seat he shows off with pride.
Once in college, Mehlenbacher’s love of science and biology blossomed. After earning his PhD from Cornell in 1982, he took up an assistant professorship in fruit tree breeding at Rutgers in New Jersey and landed at OSU in 1986 with his wife and young family. There, among the Smith Horticultural Research Farm’s rambling, shaded 160 acres, he anticipated a career in plant breeding and academia.
But the researcher arrived to take over for Maxine Thompson, the founding plant breeder at OSU, just one month before the chilling discovery of blight in Oregon, and found himself suddenly in the middle of a war. Pruning and sprays offered temporary, sporadic, and expensive relief from the blight, but entire orchards were dying. Even strong fungicides like Bravo (for which the EPA granted a series of emergency provisions to allow) had little effect. As the disease spread inexorably south into the heart of the valley, some farmers chainsawed out acres of plantings—gouging huge holes in their orchards and their bottom lines.
“US Hazelnut Crop May Be Destroyed,” intoned an AP headline in 1988. Between the 1980s and the early ’00s, some 5,000 acres were lost—each worth at least $2,700 in annual production. Not even the Columbus Day storm of 1962 with its 130-mph winds had done this much damage.
“It was spreading two miles a year,” Mehlenbacher recalls, “and we knew that 100 percent of the orchards were susceptible.”
The only long-term solution lay in finding a blight-resistant species, which could take a generation (for hazelnut trees, about 17 years). Trouble was, the only promising species identified by Thompson and her colleagues—called Gasaway—bore small nuts and, worse, had very low nut yields.
So Mehlenbacher did what any farm kid would: he rolled up his sleeves and applied his hard-earned work ethic to saving the hazelnut. Working out of the USDA Clonal Germplasm Repository in Corvallis—a kind of national gene bank for plants—Mehlenbacher and his OSU team set out to expand Thompson’s program by importing additional hazelnut cultivars from Europe, meticulously crossbreeding varietals, and planting between 4,000 and 5,000 seedlings each year. The goal: crossbreed a species hardy enough to resist the blight, but with kernels big enough to satisfy the ever-hungrier world market.
When the blight showed up in OSU’s very own research orchards—a neighboring commercial farm had become infected—Mehlenbacher went into triage mode, juggling endless hours in the germplasm laboratory. Weekends and holidays ceased to exist. He logged tens of thousands of air miles on planes to foreign orchards—Azerbaijan, Russia, Georgia, Turkey—to stock and tag still more genetic samples. Iran brought him to a major agriculture conference in 2003; the Turks sought his counsel, too. (Turkey has the most to lose, with a $1.5 billion annual crop.)
The fruits of Mehlenbacher’s labors still line the research farm’s office walls: hundreds of small Ziploc containers, each neatly labeled with a number (the tree’s location by row and tree number), holding a few handfuls of hazelnuts. And those represent only a fraction of the trees planted each year. On average less than 1 percent of every year’s seedlings—a collection of as many as 23 different crossbred varietals—make it to the next year. They are cut out as soon as they demonstrate susceptibility to blight or any number of other weaknesses.
By 2009, despite the release of several improved tree crosses, EFB was still wreaking havoc, but a little hybrid dubbed Jefferson gave Mehlenbacher reason to hope.
Halfway down an unremarkable orchard row on the research farm, Mehlenbacher stops and turns, beaming. “This is Jefferson,” he says proudly. Pretty and plump, its boughs neatly pruned into a green and brown coif of leaves and limbs, it looks pretty much like every other tree in the row. But the hardy little tree—the descendent of an international mix from Sicily, Spain, Turkey, and the Northwest—has proven highly resistant to blight. Even better, it also resists mites and produces a good-size kernel.
Mehlenbacher first planted the Jefferson cross, then known as OSU 703.007, in 1993. But the meticulous process of crossbreeding seedlings that grow into trees with a handful of promising traits—and a crop of nuts—takes a full generation. By 2009, Mehlenbacher was fairly sure Jefferson was a viable answer: Despite multiple inoculations with blight spores over its lifetime, Jefferson rarely contracted the disease. Even then, the scientist harbored some doubt.
“I don’t think that plant breeders are ever 100 percent sure they have a winner,” says Mehlenbacher, noting even when it seems a cross will resist blight, the blight itself may be morphing to survive. “We release the best we have and let the industry decide what to plant.”
In 2009, he sent Jefferson to market. It took. At the 2009 hazelnut growers society meeting, Mehlenbacher got a standing ovation. Speaking to a reporter from the Capital Press website at the time, Rich Birkemeier, a farmer, called him “genius.” An Oregonian article hailed him for having “saved the industry.” A quarter century after he had arrived among the tumult of an industry on the edge of extinction, Mehlenbacher had finally unraveled the mystery.
And yet, the war is not yet won. Mehlenbacher frets that Jefferson matures late in the season, upping the risk of a messy, rain-plagued harvest. (Hazelnuts simply fall to earth when ripe.) Replacing diseased or disease-prone orchards with the Jefferson varietal is expensive—roughly $2,400 per acre. Plus hazelnut trees take three to four years to produce nuts and don’t hit full production for another four to six years. That means even if farmers replace their diseased trees with new ones, they still must weather years of nonproduction—and no income.
“Any way you transition is going to cost money,” says Polly Owen, manager of Oregon’s Hazelnut Marketing Board.
For farms already hurting as a result of the blight, spending more isn’t an option. They are merely marking time until the end.
Early on a hushed, hazy-gold August morning, five men in jeans and button-down collars gather in a glassed-in lobby overlooking a gravel parking lot. They’re early. Of course. They’re farmers. Here, in the North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora, a 157-acre lab and office complex for Oregon State’s agriculture program, the Hazelnut Marketing Board has gathered 30 of the state’s key growers. On the morning’s agenda: break down the 2011 crop results, presage the coming harvest, and tackle a number of looming financial problems facing the official state nut.
Over the next three hours, marketing officials, an excitable USDA representative, and state Senator Larry George (R-Sherwood)—a well-known grower and an AM radio talk show host—bring the hazelnut’s decades-long struggle for survival into even sharper focus. The blight may be somewhat under control, but potential threats from foreign sources loom on the horizon. Chile has been planting extensively and is rushing into the China market tariff-free, thanks to a trade deal that especially irks George, owner of one of Oregon’s largest, most technically advanced hazelnut packaging operations. The Chinese Academy of Forestry is also spearheading its own ambitious program of hazelnut farming. Once fond of our in-shell varieties, the country has taken to the golden-hued kernels, planting as many as half a million trees each year (Oregon currently holds about 4.1
“Historically, hazelnuts grown in China are a much smaller variety that does not compete directly with the US nut,” says the marketing board’s Owen. “Of course, we realize this will change.”
The real issue for Oregon, though, is one of production. Demand is high. Trouble is, the Oregon harvest is only big enough to last a few weeks per year. We export about 75 percent of our crop overseas, yet domestically the US imports roughly 50 percent of its hazelnuts from Turkey. Owen acknowledges Oregon has added 3,000 acres in the past year, and 2012 was a bumper crop at nearly 40,000 tons, the fourth largest ever. Still, Owen notes, “We haven’t even touched our potential [domestic] market.”
Oregon simply needs to find a way to grow more hazelnuts. It will be a slow process. Bulb and tree farms offer a quicker payoff, and there isn’t much glamour in waiting seven years to see if trees will take root, not to mention avoid the blight. Grapes, which vie for the same fertile Willamette Valley land, take only three to five years to become viable for winemaking and can bring in bigger profits.
Other factors favor the Oregon hazelnut’s renaissance. The surplus of land formerly used for grass seed—now a struggling industry as a result of the Great Recession—could grow more trees. And climate change could become an ally. While some farmers and hazelnut scientists see it as a nonissue, the fact remains that during Oregon’s cyclical cooler and wetter springs, the blight’s spread moves faster. At the same time, warmer temperatures overall—like those of eastern Turkey, which has the world-leading 700,000-ton annual crop—could actually help ripen Oregon crops before fall rains turn harvest into muddy disaster. As a crop, an orchard’s life is long; a tree can produce nuts for 80 or more years. As it is with wine, so it is with hazelnuts: a battle of ripeness and timing.
A year ago, I moved back to the farm, renting a 100-year-old cottage from my folks. The view, though, has changed. Forty years of filbert farming, my parents decided, was enough: in October, a massive machine claw arrived and, in two days, tore out decades of hard work and history, casting the trees into the nearby gully like a child’s forgotten game of pick-up sticks. They sold the acreage to Rex Hill and A to Z Wineworks for pinot noir grapes.
For weeks, I couldn’t bear to climb the Hill to where our shady groves of filberts once stood. But one day friends at the winery invited me up. The steep ascent hadn’t gotten any easier; a glaze of sweat coated my face as I crested the Hill and stopped among the newly planted pinot noir vines. I breathed deep as I gazed around. Where an undulating, verdant wave of trees once stood was now a patchwork of radically pruned, shrublike stumps bedecked with new growth, a section of deadwood
utterly overtaken by blight, and an expanse of fairly healthy trees—perhaps 10 acres—that remains the orchard’s only relatively intact section. Two walnut trees that once hid among the biggest filberts now stand like sentinels, a fine place for the sunset.
Surveying our tattered land and the new grapevines at my feet, sorrow yielded to certainty and hope. There will be new life here. The valley is as hardy as it was 15,000 years ago when, soil records show, wild hazelnuts dominated every vista. Now we’re planting heirloom apples and even some hops. Below, I could see the massive white barn where we once hand-sorted and dried our crop—now awaiting a new chapter as a small organic brewery. I’d never considered this view, this shifted perspective. Later as I descended, retracing my steps along that worn path up the Hill, I couldn’t help but recall William Blake’s sage words, from Proverbs of Hell: “The cut worm forgives the plow.”