EUGENE, Ore. — Ten years ago, Linda Perrine left the tech world after spending the first half of her life working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
She bought a neglected 32-acre farm, which she named Honor Earth Farm, and began her production of organic Casina and Willamette hazelnuts.
She is one of only a handful of organic hazelnut growers. Although 99 percent of U.S. hazelnuts are grown in Oregon, less than 1 percent are organic. In 2015 — the most recent year for which numbers are available — nine organic farms harvested 108 tons of hazelnuts, bringing in $859,810.
That’s a stark contrast to the 31,000 tons that conventional hazelnut producers harvested in 2016 worth $118.8 million.
To bring awareness to organic hazelnuts and the concerns of the smaller organic growers, Perrine helped start the Organic Hazelnut Growers Association this year.
The biggest challenge organic hazelnut producers such as Perrine have encountered has been processing. She said there are only a few organic nut processors in the area and it costs more because the nuts are not uniform in size so they take more time to sort and shell.
In general, certified organic growers have a higher profit opportunity than conventional growers, Nathan Kroeker, another founding member and spokesman for the association, said. However, it depends on the method of selling a farmer chooses.
In-shell organic nuts sell wholesale for about $3.40 a pound, he said. But custom processing returns the kernels to the farmer who can sell them directly to consumers for about $8 a pound or for up to $20 a pound at retail stores such as Market of Choice or Whole Foods.
For that reason, one of the goals of the association is to establish a processing facility, he said.
According to Kroeker, there are three reasons to be organic: ecological benefits, food safety and profit opportunity. He said that he’s a mix of all three.
“(Organic growers) care about the lands and sustainability,” he said.
“Some will say organic hazelnut production is near impossible given the obstacles of the actual farming management,” Kroeker said.
Obstacles he has heard from conventional farmers include weed control, eastern filbert blight, filbert worm and organic nitrogen limitations.
The environment is important to Perrine, who harvests 90 percent of her nuts, but leaves 10 percent on the ground as her way to “give back to the wildlife.” She is proud of the environment she has created on her farm, and tries to be welcoming to the insects, birds of prey and coyotes.
“I’m creating habitat for wildlife to live with me,” she said.
Perrine joked that she spends most of her time mowing the orchard to keep the ground harvestable. She said the ground cover keeps the nuts cleaner when she brings them in. One of her other harvesting strategies is using a leaf blower to gather the nuts.
To combat pests and diseases, she sets out traps and prunes her trees often. She believes that the she shouldn’t let the branches get to the point of growing lichen, and to stop the spread of eastern filbert blight she cuts and burns infected branches.
Another organic hazelnut farm in the area is My Brothers’ Farm in Creswell, Ore, run by Taylor Larson. The farm has 320 acres, and raises over 2,000 hazelnut trees, along with cider apple trees, pigs and bison, according to the website. Larson specializes in Yamhill, Sacajawea, McDonald and Wepster hazelnut varieties and mixes nut and apple trees in the same orchard.
“It stops disease pressure and breaks up pests,” he said.
After harvest, Larson runs his pigs through the orchard to eat the remaining hazelnuts.
However, for the future, he is looking into ways of harvesting the nuts from the tree instead of from the ground, using a machine that shakes the nuts out.
“Each farm has unique needs,” Kroeker said. “There’s all kinds of ways; do what works for you; innovate your way.”