The hazelnut crisis

Will Oregon’s hazelnut industry survive?

December 28, 2012

Compared to almonds, walnuts, and pecans, hazelnuts are a little obscure. You may be more familiar with them as a flavoring (they’re the nutty taste in Nutella) than as a whole nut. But here in Oregon, they’re big business; as Christian DeBenedetti recently pointed out in Portland Monthly magazine, “99 percent of America’s hazelnuts are grown here, a harvest worth $90 million annually for Oregon.”

For decades, the hazelnut — or filbert — has been threatened with blight, an affliction that’s now somewhat preventable with the development of disease-resistant hybrid trees. But, as DeBenedetti points out, Oregon’s tree farmers are now competing globally — with China and Turkey, among other countries. And while demand for hazelnuts is high, establishing a productive orchard takes years.

“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,” notes DeBenedetti. Which is exactly what his filbert-farmer parents have done with their orchard: they cut down their trees and sold the land to winemakers.

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