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.