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ABBOTSFORD – BC hazelnut growers packed seminars and their annual meeting at the Pacific Agriculture Show in Abbotsford on January 28.

But the enthusiasm of growers for rebuilding their industry isn’t something the province seems to share.

The sector fell on hard times after Eastern Filbert Blight invaded the province in the early 2000s. Since then, the incurable disease has destroyed almost every orchard in the Fraser Valley. The few that remain are on their last legs, and much of the infrastructure the industry needs is in disrepair. Canadian Hazelnuts, the area’s only local processor, went out of business last spring and John Vandenbrink opted against turning on his dryers last fall.

But those still in the industry are committed to its resurgence.

“I think we’ve bottomed out,” says Thom O’Dell of Nature Tech Nursery. “There’s an upswing of interest.”

BC Hazelnut Growers Association (BCHGA) president Neal Tebrinke agreed, telling the crowd, “I’m starting over.”

Results of a trial of EFB-resistant varieties at Tebrinke’s orchard and five others in 2011 and 2013 so impressed Tebrinke that he removed all his trees and replanted with the new varieties.

“Over 200 acres have now been replanted or pledged to be replanted and yields on the new varieties are better than anticipated,” he said.

O’Dell, who has been importing the new varieties in tissue culture and is managing the trials, has high hopes for the future. Not only is BC in “the sweet spot” for growing hazelnuts but the trees are “well-suited to small lot agriculture.”

Excellent opportunity

“It’s an excellent opportunity to retain farm status,” adds Gary Fehr, director of the University of the Fraser Valley Agriculture Centre of Excellence.

UFV has committed to creating a database of potential lots where hazelnuts might be planted and to developing a website, brochures and other marketing materials for the BCHGA.

Fehr and O’Dell believe there is a vast potential market not only overseas but particularly in North America.

“Europe’s per capita consumption of hazelnuts is 2.5 pounds a year, but in North America the consumption is only 0.5 pounds a year,” Fehr said, with O’Dell adding, “There are lots of opportunities for value-added.”

Fehr brought in the varieties Jefferson, Eta, Theta, Gamma, Sacajawea and Yamhill, which are performing well, although there is evidence of “a little” EFB on Sacajawea and his 2011 Jefferson plantings.

“We recommend pruning out and burning infested branches and spraying with zinc copper or another approved fungicide three to four times at bud break and every two weeks thereafter,” O’Dell said.

There could be new even more resistant varieties on the way but they will come at a price. The six varieties in the current trial are all from Oregon State University’s breeding program and are in the public domain.

Shawn Mehlenbacher, who has run the program for over 30 years, says Oregon growers already have access to three more promising new EFB-resistant varieties: Dorris, Wepster and McDonald.

He says Dorris has a nut size similar to Barcelona but is much higher yielding. It is also resistant to bud mite. He calls Wepster a perfect variety for the blanched kernel market, which represents most of the demand for hazelnuts. McDonald is a high-yielding, early maturing companion to Wepster.  

“I view my job as giving my growers options and with the new varieties; they now have many options.”

As a result, the Oregon industry has rebounded from the “dark days” of the 1980s and 90s when grower meetings would attract a mere 250 people.

“This year, we had over 900 people at our meeting,” Mehlenbacher reported.

Mehlenbacher has signed a material transfer agreement allowing Nature Tech to bring five new varieties to BC for research purposes. The varieties are patent-protected so not yet available for sale in BC.

That could soon change, says Sylvia Mosterman of NEO Plants and Mosterman Plants in Chilliwack. She’s working with Mehlenbacher to become the lead nursery to import the new varieties into Canada.

“We want to deal with one nursery which can secure plant breeder rights,” Mehlenbacher said.

While some believe Nature Tech should become the lead, securing rights to the varieties is too costly for a small nursery. Mosterman, on the other hand, is executive director of the Canadian Ornamental Plant Foundation and has the expertise and resources needed to navigate the rules. She is also promising Nature Tech a sub-license should she secure the rights.

“Everything will be done legally and you can look for trees in three years,” Mosterman told growers.

Supportive efforts

New infrastructure is also being developed for the sector.

Steven Fehr and Kevin Hooge of Fraser Valley Hazelnuts noted that after buying a small plant a few years ago, they ramped up their dryers last fall to meet increasing demand.

“We processed 60 tons of nuts for six growers,” Fraser Valley Hazelnuts reports. It’s the only Canadian receiving station for George Packing, one of Oregon’s largest hazelnut processors.

While the current plant will handle all the nuts produced in the Fraser Valley for the next six years, the brothers-in-law told growers they intend to upgrade and expand in step with local growers.

There is even help for people who want hazelnuts but don’t want to manage the orchard, says James Dick.

He and his son have been growing and managing cedar trees for years and are now expanding their services to include hazelnut orchards.

“We have equipment and will purchase more so we can do your mowing, spraying, pruning and harvesting on a custom basis,” Dick said.

No assistance

Everyone else may be onside but the government is still refusing to provide any assistance, turning down the sector’s request to include hazelnuts in the orchard replant program.

“[Chilliwack-Hope MLA] Laurie Throness and I lobbied very hard for the growers but we were told there’s no money,” Chilliwack MLA John Martin told BC Farm Writers Association at its AGM on January 27.

Hazelnut growers eye new varieties [David Schmidt]

CLBC February 2017

Vol.103 Issue 5
MARCH  2017

CLBC March 2017