Anecdotal evidence indicates Oregon hazelnut growers are adding about 3,000 acres a year.
Hazelnut trees take three to four years to begin producing nuts in earnest, but Polly Owen, executive director of the Oregon Hazelnut Commission, said a ready market will be waiting.
“Keep in mind that we are 3 percent of the world (production),” Owen said. “I think we’re fine.”
The amount of land available for expansion might be more of a limiting factor, she said.
Oregon produces 99 percent of the U.S. hazelnut crop, with about 650 growers operating on roughly 30,000 acres. Half the crop is exported, with China the biggest buyer. Once threatened by eastern filbert blight that arrived in the 1970s, the industry’s been on the rise since Oregon State University’s breeding program began producing a series of varieties that resist the deadly fungus.
Statistics from the harvest this past fall aren’t yet available, but 2012 saw growers pull in 34,700 tons of nuts. The crop was valued at $63.4 million, ranking 16th among Oregon’s commodities.
Oregon and the U.S. are small players in the world’s hazelnut industry, however. Turkey produces 70 percent of the world supply, and Italy is second with 18 percent. Owen and others believe those statistics demonstrate there is much room for expansion by Oregon growers. Shawn Mehlenbacher, the OSU professor and plant breeder credited by many with saving the industry, said in a 2012 interview that Oregon could double production just to replace imports.
With young hazelnut trees a common sight in the Willamette Valley, it appears Oregon growers also believe an opportunity exists. But is there a market saturation point on the horizon? No one, after all, wants to be the last one to hop on the bandwagon.
“What is the top? Boy, this is the $6 million question – we don’t know,” said Jim Cramer, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s commodity inspection program. The program helps Oregon farmers market their products around the world.
Cramer said he wonders the same thing about blueberries, another state crop that has grown rapidly in acreage. Continued growth requires displacing other producers, he said.
“Like most crops Oregon produces, we are not the biggest player,” he said. “Where we find success is in the quality of the products we produce, and they garner a premium (price).”
Quality, not crop size, has always been the hallmark of Oregon products such as wine, fruit and nuts, Cramer said.
“Our growers figure out how to do it better than anyone else,” he said.