Country Life in BC

November 2016

Hazelnut growers optimistic

by David Schmidt

CHILLIWACK – The BC hazelnut industry has bottomed out, BC Hazelnut Growers’ Association director Thom O’Dell told a large group of current and potential new growers at the hazelnut field day at Helmut Hooge’s farm in Chilliwack in September.

Once flourishing in the Fraser Valley, hazelnut growers started falling on hard times when Eastern Filbert Blight invaded just over a decade ago. Since then, many long-standing orchards have been removed and the remainder are heavily infected with the incurable disease.

Seeing the writing on the wall, five (now four) Fraser Valley growers and one on Hornby Island worked with O’Dell to bring in six new EFB-resistant varieties from Oregon in tissue culture. Helped by a grant from the Investment Agriculture Foundation of BC, the growers planted the first of the new trees in 2011 and another set in 2013 in a trial to see how they would perform.

Hooge is one of the participants in the trial and now has 230 Yamhill, 200 Jefferson and 70 Sacajawea trees as well as a few Eta, Theta and Gamma pollinators in his orchard.

“Every fourth tree in every third row is a pollinator,” Hooge said.

He stressed the trees are “resistant” but not immune to the disease, saying pruning can keep the disease at bay, if not eliminate it altogether.

“We started seeing some EFB in the new trees in 2013,” O’Dell reported, telling growers to apply an approved fungicide on young trees after bud break and prune out and burn any affected limbs.

Hooge has followed that strategy and his new trees show few signs of EFB despite being located right next to his heavily infected Barcelona orchard.

Both he and O’Dell say they have already learned a lot about managing the new varieties, including how and when to plant them. That was obvious in Hooge’s orchard as the 2013 plantings appear to be more vigorous and productive than the 2011 plantings, despite being two years younger.

Although this has been a good year for production, growers wrestled with what to do with their nuts. Because so many of the infected orchards have been uprooted, there were not enough nuts for John Vandenbrink, who has the only remaining commercial-scale nut dryer in the area, to run his dryer this year. Instead, most growers sent their nuts to Hooge for drying, used other small-scale dryers or shipped their nuts to Oregon for drying.

New growers

In the meantime, O’Dell and the other BCHGA directors are doing all they can to interest new growers.

“We received an agriculture enhancement grant from the Abbotsford Foundation and are partnering with the University of the Fraser Valley and a farm in Abbotsford to make the general public more aware of hazelnuts,” BCHGA president Neal Tebrinke said.

O’Dell said hazelnuts are ideal for small acreages, claiming “you can get enough nuts from two acres to get your farm status.”

Denise Parker of MNP concurred, saying hazelnuts could “help fund a farming lifestyle” and preserve farm status for capital gains exemption. She presented an enterprise budget prepared in July 2015 which suggests that even though growers can expect losses in the first three years, that will level out as the orchard comes into production. By year 20, growers will have generated a total gross margin of $40,000 per acre based on current prices.

O’Dell believes prices will only improve, noting there is a “growing (worldwide) demand for all nuts.”

There may even be an option for potential new growers who are interested in hazelnuts but may not have the time or expertise to plant and/or manage the orchard.

Custom services

James and Anthony Dick, who have years of experience growing cedar hedging, are planting five acres of hazelnuts on their own property this fall and will then offer that service to other growers.

“We have the equipment to prep and plant an orchard and will purchase harvesting equipment to offer custom work services on a per hour basis,” they said.

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