NASS says finding people, actual increase a challenge
By MITCH LIES
McMINNVILLE, Ore. -- No one apparently knows exactly how many hazelnut acres have been planted in Oregon the last few years, but one fact is not in question: The hazelnut industry is growing.
A recently released USDA report shows hazelnut production increased 1,600 acres from four years ago, growing from 30,100 acres in 2008 to 31,700 acres today.
But the industry believes the 1,600-acre increase is well short of the actual increase, given that nurseries report strong hazelnut tree sales and visual evidence of new plantings is abundant in the Willamette Valley.
And USDA statisticians acknowledge they are having difficulty locating new hazelnut growers. New growers aren't in the hazelnut marketing system, said Bruce Ecklund, deputy director of the Oregon field office of the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, and won't be until their trees start bearing nuts and they begin paying assessments.
"It is a challenge for us to find people who are totally new to the industry," Ecklund said, "but we did take some aggressive measures to find people who hadn't had hazelnuts before."
Polly Owen, manager of the Oregon Hazelnut Industry Office, declined to speculate on how many new hazelnut acres have been planted in Oregon in recent years. But, she said, an industry-funded survey indicates that it was far more than the USDA estimate.
The survey of nurseries found that around 2,750 acres of new trees were planted annually between 2009 and 2011. A percentage of that acreage involves orchardists pulling out trees susceptible to a fungal disease, Eastern filbert blight, and replanting with EFB-resistant trees, Owen said.
But even attributing a high percentage to replantings and assuming high-density plantings, Owen said, survey results indicate the 1,600-acre figure is low.
"Most people believe that is very, very conservative," she said.
Getting a better handle on hazelnut acreage is important for several reasons, Owen said, including that it provides processors and handlers a better idea of marketing needs and equipment demands they'll face come harvest.
Also, Owen said, accurate acreage figures help the hazelnut commission better prepare budgets and plan promotional campaigns. The commission is funded by grower assessments that are based on tonnage.
Despite this uncertainty, no one is complaining. Owen said the industry welcomes new production to help it reach a critical mass necessary to entice large-scale buyers to the high-end Oregon product.
On more than one occasion, Owen said, large-scale hazelnut buyers have held back from buying Oregon product because of an inability of the industry to meet the buyer's supply needs.
Oregon is the top hazelnut producer in the U.S., but it produces only about 4 percent of the world's supply.
"If we can get this industry a bit larger, it would be very, very helpful," Owen said.
Growers have increased hazelnut plantings in recent years for several reasons, Owen said, including declining markets for competing crops, such as grass seed, and the fact that hazelnuts have brought good prices the last several years. Also, many growers who long considered planting hazelnuts delayed their move until Oregon State University released varieties resistant to eastern filbert blight. Those varieties are now available in abundance.
"I think it took all three factors to fall into place for people to make that decision to plant hazelnuts," Owen said.
Also, according to Jeff Olsen, orchard crops extension agent for the north Willamette Valley, some growers are switching to hazelnuts from more labor-intensive crops because of concerns over future labor supply.
Growers typically don't jump into hazelnut production hastily, Owen said, in part because of substantial upfront investment costs, and because newly planted hazelnut trees don't bear nuts for several years.
Olsen, who is based at the Yamhill County Extension office in McMinnville, said he believes hazelnuts are a good investment under the right conditions.
"I think it is a good investment," Olsen said. "It's hard to predict the prices, but we've been on a roll that last four or five years, and, hopefully, that will continue with an increased demand for the product."
Farm employment up in 2012,