Oregon farmers shouldn’t hesitate to plant more hazelnut trees because a crop shortage poses a greater risk than an oversupply, according to an industry expert.
Compared to Turkey, Oregon and other hazelnut growing regions are responsible for only a small slice of world production, said Michael Waring, a board director of the International Nut and Dried Fruit Council.
“Keep planting, we need more product,” he said. “It’s not going to blow the market out of the water.”
Global food manufacturers are investing in new products and equipment to boost their usage of nuts, driven by news of their healthful qualities, he said during the recent Nut Growers Society meeting at the Northwest Ag Show in Portland, Ore.
The nut industry must continue growing to ensure dependable supplies and sensible pricing, otherwise nuts will have difficulty competing against other food groups, Waring said.
The industry’s ability to deliver enough product is a big risk, since insufficient supplies or major price hikes can burn customers, he said.
“We have to be very careful as marketers and processors,” Waring said.
Consumption of all nuts has more than tripled in the past three decades, to about 3.5 million metric tons a year, he said.
While the overall trend in production is up, the industry faces inevitable weather-related fluctuations in supply, Waring said.
New opportunities for nuts are arising not just in China but throughout Southeast Asia and Brazil, he said.
“Be really confident in what you’re producing,” Waring said.
Until now, the overseas demand for Oregon hazelnuts has primarily been driven by consumers in northeast China, said Troy Johnson of the Laurel Nut Co. and MWT Foods.
A growing middle class in other regions is opening up further demand for the crop, he said. Food processors in China are also growing more sophisticated.
“Our customers over there are spending more money than we even are to make sure that product is safe,” Johnson said.
Despite competition from other hazelnut growing regions and slowed growth in China’s economy, the prospects for hazelnut growers are still positive, said Larry George, president of the George Packing Co.
“The reality is we’re not worried,” he said.
More than three of four Chinese consumers buy hazelnuts as gifts for the Chinese New Year or other holidays, said Michael Severeid, sales manager at Willamette Hazelnut Growers.
About 58 percent of the consumers — who were surveyed by Chinese business students — preferred in-shell hazelnuts over kernels, he said.
Kernels were considered more convenient but in-shell hazelnuts were seen as providing better shelf life and nutrition, Severeid said.
About 62 percent of the surveyed consumers said they’d be willing to pay the most for U.S. hazelnuts, versus 25 percent for Chinese hazelnuts, he said.
U.S. hazelnuts were perceived to have the best quality, safety, flavor and size, Severeid said. “The takeaway from this study is the American brand is very good.”