Brenna Wiegand/For the Capital Press
Propagation has become the major focus at the Ron Chapin hazelnut farm near Salem.
Chapin, who owns and operates the orchards with sons Larry and Paul and nephews Jeff, Steve and Caleb, said the idea is to maintain a cash flow while their young orchards reach maturity. As with farmers across the Willamette Valley, they must plant new varieties as traditional varieties fall to eastern filbert blight.
“We’ve been pushing the nursery business because we’re going to go through a period of time when we have young trees and no old, producing orchards which is going to be a little bit tight cashflow wise,” Chapin said.
Chapin runs a bare root nursery and micropropagation operation at the 700-acre family farm. In past years, they’ve grown volumes of the Jefferson variety but are switching gears in an attempt to keep up with a growing demand for Webster and are relying on the speed of layering versus tissue culture to grab the business at hand.
“We’re trying real hard to get these things into our layering program because when we put a tissue cultured tree in the ground we have a two-year wait before we can harvest a bare root tree,” Chapin said. “However, without tissue and just relying on grafting and layering to multiply the trees for our layering beds, it would take a decade to do what we do in two years.”
Travis Adams is Chapin’s partner in the micropropagation business and manages the laboratory, where Adams has a bumper crop of Webster trees underway.
Chapin got into micropropagation eight years ago while his daughter Nicole was pursuing her horticulture degree at Oregon State University. She came home excited about the hazelnut micropropagation going on there. Through trial, error and lots of help from others, the lab is now producing nicely and predictably.
“There is always something but we’ve been able to work our way through it; even the volume of the container makes a big difference,” Adams said. “I feel like everything we’ve done right has been by people giving us really good advice and trying to replicate that within the budget we have. We may do things differently such as using Saran wrap on Mason jars, but it’s working really well.”
This year the lab will serve about 15 customers, up from last year’s six, and is on track to produce 150,000 plants. Ron has about 60 bare root customers and will also produce 150,000 trees in addition to some 40,000-50,000 potted varieties. Together, it’s enough to cover 1,500-2,000 acres.
“It is a nice little business,” Chapin said. “There’s a lot of excitement in the hazelnut industry right now because of the prices. You go to the industry meetings and the attendance has doubled or tripled.”
Eastern filbert blight, which could have been the death knell of the industry, is slowly being defeated as farmers replace dying orchards with the sturdy, disease-resistant varieties coming out of Oregon State.
“Without those we would be in a sorry state as an industry,” Chapin said. “Instead, orchards are going in all over the place.”
Chapin’s own orchards yield 3,500-4,000 pounds of nuts an acre, though it’s been as high as 5,000. He’s hoping the new varieties perform similarly — and sooner rather than later.
After planting 400 acres of Jefferson hazelnuts on ground previously in seed and forage crops they’re starting in on replanting replant old Ennis orchards in McDonald and Webster. In seven or eight years, all 700 acres of the farm will be in new varieties.
“Even though we’ve doubled our acreage, our production is flat for the next seven or eight years,” Chapin said. “Industry wide, you’re going to see production go up because the acreage is being planted but there is also a lot of older stuff that’s dying so I don’t think you’ll see it go up real fast; maybe in 10 years or so.
“Ninety-nine percent of the hazelnuts in the country are grown right here and we’re not that big of an industry,” Chapin said. “My brother Bruce and I make up about 2 percent of nationwide production. Most other crops, you’re nothing; you don’t even show up statistically.”
Between his brother Bruce Chapin, two sons and three nephews, the Chapin farm has spawned six independent, hazelnut-related businesses.
“I’m far more interested in each of them running their own business than in having a big corporate farm that everybody owns a little piece of,” Chapin said.