BY Jeff Tribe
Newly-elected Ontario Hazelnut Association (OHA) chair Kevin Hodge wouldn’t be encouraging other farmers to consider “going nuts” had he not already done so.
“There is potential there,” said the Harley-area cash cropper, who added ten acres of hazelnuts to a “couple thousand acre mix” featuring corn, rye, soy, kidney and white beans. As well as advancing a personal policy of agricultural diversification, hazels embrace smaller acreage farming, contrasting the large scale/thin margin challenge.
“A 50 or 100-acre farm could be viable,” Hodge said. “Let’s put it that way.”
The majority of the world’s hazelnuts are grown in Turkey, with Oregon taking the lead on North American production. The arrival of a massive Ferrero Canada plant outside Brantford and company indications it would welcome 25,000 acres of locally-sourced nuts helped spur interest in long-term Ontario hazelnut potential. However, replacing domestic demand currently serviced through imports and developing value-added niche opportunities represent viable shorter-term marketing goals.
Hodge’s own introduction to hazelnuts was encouraged through annual OHA symposiums, resulting in 2018, 2019 and 2020 plantings.
“We are all learning together,” said Hodge, who “prepared to step up and help out,” replaced outgoing OHA chair Eric Beriault in April, 2021 at this year’s virtual AGM. The organization’s stated goals include leading industry development through advocacy, identifying, developing and promoting marketing opportunities, providing and sharing educational resources, research and project collaboration, basically acting as a hub for industry producers, aggregators, processors and retailers.
“It’s kind of the go-to and we hope to keep it that way,” said Hodge. “Helping make the connection between producers and end users.”
The OHA website (https://ontariohazelnuts.com) is the organization’s entry portal, offering information, education and networking.
The Grimo Nut Nursery website (grimonut.com) provides another great resource for those considering hazelnuts. A business founded 45 years ago by Ernie Grimo continuing today with his daughter Linda is considered a, if not the, leading hazelnut nursery in Ontario. The website contains a wealth of information which offers a detailed introduction to hazelnut farming: varieties, planting grid, pollination requirements and climatic considerations.
The nursery’s decades of experience indicate hazelnuts can be successful provincially says Linda, based in part on varietal selection appropriate for Ontario climate.
“Or climates, because we vary quite a bit.”
Grimo nut trees are produced through clonal propagation, mostly layered, which emphasizes Linda, is crucial to uniform commercial production in terms of nut size, consistency and ripening at the same time. In the same manner as children from the same parents may exhibit considerable variation, seedlings may produce varied nuts compared to clonal propagation, variance ultimately reducing the value of a crop.
Nut trees are a passion for her father says Linda, but also represent a deep, shared commitment to providing the best quality possible in order to allow farmers to be successful. Seeing orchards of hazelnuts, heartnuts and black walnuts popping up through his pioneering efforts has been “so exciting” for Ernie, she added.
“That will be his ongoing legacy years and years and years down the road.”
Specifically speaking, OHA initiatives include input from a trial farm project established in 2016, hiring students through a federal summer job program to continue compiling multi-year Ontario-based data on varieties, disease and insect pressures, soil types and locations, and crucially, sourcing Canada Agricultural Partnership (CAP) funding targeted toward developing a marketing strategy.
“Where you get a nice return for your investment,” says Hodge.
Hazelnuts require a “get rich slow” expectation, theoretically beginning to produce nuts at five years of age, more tangible levels realized between seven and ten. With earlier plantations heading toward expanded harvests, the emergence of aggregators — the hazelnut equivalent of grain elevators for cash croppers — is helping “close the loop” for a fledgling industry looking not only to grow, but profitably sell nuts.
“That should certainly help the process along,” said Hodge.
Trees are planted on a grid, often but not exclusively 18-by-18-feet or via a “double density” approach, trees nine feet apart in 18-foot rows for example, to accelerate earlier per-acre production. As trees grow, alternates are spaded out and transplanted, leaving an 18-foot grid. Hazelnuts “don’t like wet feet” and are recommended to be planted on drained ground, ideally with drip irrigation at least through their earlier, most-vulnerable years before root systems develop and deepen.
Species as well as spacing is vital to a hazelnut orchard, including strategically-placed cross-pollinating varieties whose variable pollen emission schedules from male catkins and female flower reception must line up with those of the main production trees. Oregon-based varieties Jefferson, Yamhill and Gamma anchor Hodge’s orchard, supported by provincial pollinators including Matt, Cheryl, Gene and Northern Blaze.
Beyond gypsy moths and other “regular” pests, Eastern Filbert Blight (EFB) is a major industry concern, a potentially devastating fungal infection caused by Anisogramma anomala. Hodge preventively sprays against EFB, and also regularly inspects, prunes and destroys any affected material, its arrival admittedly a “worrisome” sign.
EFB remains the industry’s number one concern, answered through the three pillars of breeding and growing more resistant trees, spraying, and closely monitoring for, cutting out and eliminating any incidence.
Courtland-area farmer Martin Hodgson experienced the full weight of EFB’s destructive potential 20 years ago, with just 150 trees surviving from an initial 5,000 seedlings planted in 1994, ’95 and ’97 — enough devastation to make most people give up.
“I almost did,” admits Hodgson, who instead spaded the survivors into one dedicated area in an attempt to create a resistant strain. Still growing 20-plus years later, “blight free”, Hodgson has propagated and patented two varieties, Norfolk and Chelsea, and is applying for plant breeder’s rights on a third: Hodgson 5C, each with a “highly, highly-resistant” classification.
He also returned to planting in 2016 with two acres of Jefferson and Yamhill trees, the bridgehead for his current 10 acres.
“I’m hoping to have 30 or 40 acres here in the next ten years.”
Hodgson estimates cost of planting per double-density (268 trees) acre at between $6,000 and $7,000, including trees, planting, soil preparation and drip irrigation installation. It does take six to ten years for trees to produce he concedes, but then “they are 100-year trees.”
Hodgson prunes in winter or late spring, has a spraying regimen including anti-sucker, fungus, bacteria and pests (gypsy moths in particular on young trees) and mows his orchard’s cover crop during the summer.
His 2016 planting produced around two pounds of nuts per tree during last year’s fall harvest says Hodgson, who anticipates no problems whatsoever in moving a crop whose demand he believes exceeds supply.
“You can’t flood the market,” he said, indicating the “George Packing Company” logo on his hat, an Oregon-based company Hodgson says is ready to welcome Ontario hazelnuts. “Once you get a crop, we’ll take it.”
Using an estimated green price of $1.50 per pound, Hodgson projects a yield per acre of 2,000 pounds, the resultant gross calculation of $3,000 per acre before expenses translating into a livable return from a 100-acre property.
“Legally,” he smiled.
In closing, Hodgson recommends putting in a couple of acres, “getting going and figuring things out.”
“And then you plant ten.”
Rebecca Compton did begin with a 2.5-acre planting after being intrigued by hazelnuts’ potential. However while she anticipates adding another three or four in fall 2022, “and more hopefully every year after that,” Compton also expanded in another direction. The Delhi-area mixed conventional and organic commodity producer, and Asparagus Farmers of Ontario chair and Ontario Produce Marketing Association director identified primary post-harvest receiving capacity as critical to the entire value chain. An entrepreneur with an endlessly-restless mind and five years in the western oil and hospitality industries behind her, Compton began researching related equipment.
Her quest led to Chianchia, an Italian company with decades of experience building machinery for collecting, cleaning, drying, storage and final processing of hazelnuts, chestnuts and other in-shell edibles. COVID-19 delayed the arrival of a pre-cleaner and cleaning unit by six months, but they made it in time for a successful smaller-scale “test drive’ last fall.
Compton’s business plan is to either buy nuts from producers, or offer the flexibility of custom cleaning and drying for those who have or would like to develop their own secondary markets. In practice, hazelnuts will be received in bins, totes, boxes bags, “however the farmer brings them”, and augered into the pre-cleaner which will remove larger debris, sand and hopefully any remaining husks. If husk removal proves problematic in practice, drying in the farm’s repurposed tobacco kilns may precede this stage.
The second clearing unit removes smaller debris including leaves, twigs and stems.“Basically get it so it’s just nuts,” said Compton.
They then experience a sanitizing wash and will be placed in racks for drying. “And then they’ll be ready for sizing and cracking.”
Cracking capacity is a final stage which Compton hopes to add as soon as this fall, dependent on ongoing COVID-19-related European machinery acquisition challenges.
There is currently some limited provincial primary processing capacity, but Compton is not aware of any other similar facility prepared to accept hazelnuts this fall on a larger scale.
“This was a big piece that was missing,” she summed up, and a necessary one, “so we can start to grow the industry.
“You need to be able to get them to market.”
Investing on the forefront of a developing industry could be considered risky.
“Farming is always a risk,” Compton laughed. “Every day is a risk. But I’d like to think it’s a calculated risk.”
Her experience with asparagus, waiting four or more years for production may be helpful, but there’s also an element of personal passion for a unique, “different and’fun’ opportunity in a crop she sees taking off on a global scale, providing opportunity not only for multi-national corporations, but Ontario niche marketing initiatives.
“There is definitely a future for the commodity in the province.”◊