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
million trees).

“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.”