By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Could hazelnuts be part of the answer to profitability for 100 acre farms? Matt and Becky Belfour are hoping so.
The couple and their two sons farm outside of Seaforth at Ginger Flock Farm where Becky does most of the work of raising and marketing Tunis and Tunis-cross lambs from 90 ewes while Matt works full time as a merchandiser for Huron Commodities. They rent most of their acreage out, using some land for pasture.
Their goal, however, is to be able to make a living from their farm. So, like many farmers with small acreages, Matt and Becky have researched opportunities to make their 100 acres profitable. Years ago, Matt read an article about the Ferrero plant in Brantford which produces Nutella and candies needing 20,000 acres of hazelnut trees to supply the demand for hazelnuts. However, there are only an estimated 700 acres in Ontario.
The couple started researching the possibilities and eventually joined the Ontario Hazelnut Association to get more information. They attended some symposiums and two years ago, Matt planted 10 hazelnut trees as an experiment to see if they would survive in Huron County, which is a little colder than in the southernmost part of the province where most of the hazelnut groves are located.
The trees survived and Matt started working with Grimo Nut Nursery at Niagara-on-the-Lake to propagate 300 trees for phase one of a four-part planting project that will result in 1,000 hazelnut trees. It takes at least a year to propagate enough varieties for a multi-variety planting, a requirement for hazelnut trees because they are wind-pollinated. Plus, Matt wanted specific varieties that would thrive in this area.
In March, the couple double-planted the 300 trees by hand with shovels. Normally, trees are spaced 16 feet by 16 feet but the Belfours planted them in rows 16 feet apart but spaced only eight feet apart. The trees will get established and grow and then half the trees will be transplanted to another acre. Eventually, they will create a four acre stand of hazelnut trees. By taking a staggered approach, the Beflours can continue making money on rented acres until the hazelnuts are ready to produce nuts in four to five years.
“We figure the rent money we receive will pay for moving the trees,” says Matt. Also, research has revealed the trees don’t seem to suffer when moved with a tree spade.
The Belfours don’t have practical experience with hazelnut trees yet but as a new entrant into hazelnut growing, Matt has learned much from his research and asking questions of Murray Grimo and his daughter Linda at Grimo Nut Nursery who have been growing nut trees for over 40 years. Four things Matt found interesting are:
Hazelnut trees pollinate at the end of winter. Originally, Matt thought to put beehives among the trees to assist in pollination but hazelnuts do not rely on insect pollinators, as they are wind pollinated.
Each hazelnut tree has a male and female component. The catkin is the male part and the flower is the female part. However, a hazelnut tree cannot pollinate itself. That’s why multiple varieties are required in an hazelnut orchard. The Belfours have planted these six varieties: Gamma, Yamhill, Linda, Carmela, Andrew and Aldara. The Grimos helped him develop a planting plan to place varieties for best possible pollination.
Hazelnuts fall naturally. Matt wondered how he would harvest the nuts when the trees are 20 feet tall but the nuts dry and fall to the ground where they are swept up. Larger operations have machines that shake the trees for nuts to fall onto a sort of umbrella but starting small means lots of manual labour will be required once the trees start producing.
Hazelnut trees live and produce fruit for 75 to 100 years. Thinking long-term, the Belfours like the idea of establishing something that their kids might benefit from in the future.
Currently, hazelnut growers are fairly scattered and there are no definitive markets for the nuts. Each grower is kind of doing their own thing. With his expertise in merchandising, Matt hopes he can help the industry develop more markets and potentially be involved in creating a centralized market depot, as exists for traditional crops.
When his trees start producing, Matt says he will work on developing contracts with confection companies and potentially sell at farmer’s markets.
Matt knows he has much to learn about hazelnuts, their productivity and diseases that threaten their survival, such as filbert blight. He’s excited about the challenge and about bringing a new kind of crop to Huron County. ◊