Opportunity Grows on Ontario Hazelnut Trees
Hazelnuts are enjoyed by many Canadian consumers, especially in the form of Nutella or Ferrero Rocher chocolates. Though both products are produced in Ontario, most of the hazelnuts used in these products come from across the Atlantic Ocean. Eighty percent of the world’s hazelnuts are produced in Turkey, equivalent to just over 500,000 tonnes of hazelnuts, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Adam Dale, college professor emeritus in the Department of Plant Agriculture, has been making headlines for his research on bringing hazelnut production to Ontario. Together with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) and the Ontario Hazelnut Association, Adam is helping to establish an Ontario hazelnut industry through his efforts to determine the most productive tree varieties for the province.
Hazelnuts began to catch the attention of Ontario researchers, farmers and the government in 2006 when Ferrero opened a manufacturing plant in the city of Brantford. Ferrero is best known for those Canadian favourites previously mentioned: Ferrero Rocher and Nutella.
The Brantford plant supplies Canada with Ferrero hazelnut products, and also exports to the United States, Mexico and Australia.
Adam saw the opening of the Brantford plant as a great opportunity for Ontario producers, especially those who were looking to diversify their crops. He approached Ferrero about the development of an Ontario hazelnut industry and in 2008, Adam and his team began research trials.
“With Ferrero’s support and available funding, the research trials we began in 2008 are still continuing today,” explains Adam. The hazelnut trials are being done at the University of Guelph Simcoe Research Station in Simcoe, Ontario.
“Early on in the research, we identified three major concerns with developing an Ontario hazelnut industry,” he shares. First and foremost, the researchers needed to find varieties that could withstand Ontario winters.
Some hazelnut varieties cannot tolerate the Ontario winters, and their catkins freeze off. Catkins are flowering clusters that when pollinated, produce fruit, or in this instance, nuts. With hazelnuts, pollination is more complicated as they are self-incompatible, meaning they must cross-pollinate. Without catkins, hazelnuts cannot be pollinated and no crop will be produced.
Another concern is the presence of Eastern Filbert Blight in Ontario. Hazelnuts are also known as filberts, and this disease can devastate a crop. British Columbia has a well-established hazelnut industry, but the Eastern Filbert Blight recently destroyed many orchards in the province.
For a hazelnut industry to be successful in Ontario the varieties must be resistant to this disease, or at least tolerant of it. Since beginning his trials, Adam has had success in selecting and breeding varieties that are tolerant or resistant to the disease.
Finally, Adam and his team needed to develop a strategy to propagate hazelnut trees rapidly in order to help advance their research efforts quickly. With the help of Prof. Praveen Saxena, also in the Department of Plant Agriculture, a micro-propagation technique was established. This technique enables propagation of the hazelnut trees to occur three times faster than anywhere else in the world. Mori Essex Nurseries, located in Jordan Station, Ontario, is now using this technique to propagate varieties for research and commercial purposes.
Through his research, Adam and his team have developed a preliminary list of recommended hazelnut varieties for Ontario, and he is already seeing success with many of the local Ontario varieties. “We have some local varieties which are doing very well,” Adam shares. “Some are already in the marketplace, and others will be in the marketplace soon.”
The research process has not been without its challenges. Hazelnut trees, which are perennials, take four years to grow a crop, and seven to eight years to grow a full crop.
“The length of time required for research with these perennial crops is one of the biggest issues,” states Adam.
Another issue has been the winter hardiness and disease resistance, or lack thereof, of the varieties being researched. Two varieties in the research trials died this past winter setting back the research four seasons, due to the time needed for the tree to mature.
Adam has also needed to balance hardiness with final product. “The varieties which are most winter-hardy tend not to have the quality preferred by Ferrero,” he explains. Ferrero requires high quality hazelnuts to ensure their final products are properly processed and maintain an excellent taste.
However, to ensure the industry is successful, more than research is needed. The next step, and one of the most crucial, is to attract and maintain producer interest. Elliott Currie, an associate professor in the Department of Management, College of Business and Economics, believes that the profit to be made will provide the incentive.
“At today’s price, per acre you could make over $3,000 with a mature orchard,” Elliott shares. This estimate is based on a yield of 2,200 pounds per acre, modified from statistics from Oregon in the United States. Software has also been developed for producers to individualize their data and calculate their own expected return. This software is available free of charge on the Mori-Essex Nurseries website.
Once producers are interested, and varieties have been found that satisfy the three requirements for successful production in Ontario, it is expected that rapid expansion of the hazelnut industry in Ontario will begin.
The end goal for Adam and his research team is to establish 10,000 – 20,000 acres of hazelnut trees in the province, though he adds the potential is much greater. “30,000 acres of hazelnuts is not unreal in Ontario,” shares Adam. “There is a market for anything we produce.”
This article is the first in a series on Ontario hazelnuts. Funding for this article was provided by the W.S. (Stan) Young Memorial Communications Grant through the OAC Alumni Foundation.