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Grower gains global perspective

Peter McDonald helps overseas growers improve hazelnut production

Capital Press

WILSONVILLE, Ore. -- Hazelnut grower Peter McDonald has heard the rumblings.

Since the mid-1990s, when McDonald began traveling to developing countries to help growers improve their nut production, he's heard the talk that helping foreign growers harms U.S. farmers.

But for McDonald there is no conflict of interest in raising the bar in international hazelnut production.

McDonald, who spent two weeks last year instructing hazelnut growers in the Republic of Georgia, believes helping farmers in Georgia helps farmers in Oregon.

"I'm convinced if Customer A in China, Oregon, New York or Europe is having a good experience eating hazelnuts, that is going to be good for all of the hazelnut growers in the world," he said.

"There is always some suspicion about helping competitors," McDonald said. "But I don't look at it that way."

Last year's volunteer mission to Georgia was arranged through CNFA, an international aid organization founded in 1985 as Citizens Network for Foreign Affairs.

The missions have opened McDonald's eyes to production difficulties faced by growers in the region. And they have benefited McDonald in tangible and intangible ways.

The main hurdle to improving hazelnut production in the region, where harvest is still done by hand, is limited infrastructure, McDonald said.

"The whole infrastructure is just not there," he said. "You just don't run down to the feed store and get 5 gallons of Roundup."

The lack of infrastructure contributes to poor weed control, poor insect control and poor quality control.

McDonald said he emphasized to the Georgian growers the importance of producing a good nut.

"I think the most important lesson that we in Oregon can give to them is the issue of quality," he said. "It's got to be a good nut. It's got to be dried properly. It's got to be shelled properly and you have to increase your production per acre."

McDonald, 69, has been a leader in the Oregon hazelnut industry for most of the last 35 years. He served six years on the Oregon Hazelnut Commission, is a past president of the Nut Growers Society, a regular spokesman for the industry and has been an innovator in the field.

"This guy has been in every part of the industry," said Polly Owen, manager of the Hazelnut Marketing Board. "And he has brought a futuristic perspective to the table, no matter what the topic."

"Peter has been a courageous fighter against Eastern filbert blight," Oregon State University hazelnut breeder Shawn Mehlenbacher said. "He set a good example for the other growers about what is possible if you stay on top of the situation."

"In the south (Willamette) Valley, we learn from the growers up north," OSU Lane County Extension agent Ross Penhallegon said. "Innovators like Peter are helping to save an industry."

McDonald began working with international organizations in the mid-1990s. His first two journeys -- both to South America -- were not particularly successful, he said.

"After the South American trips, I felt I hadn't accomplished much," he said, "so I was reluctant to do more."

Several factors aligned to prompt McDonald to participate in a 2001 journey to Azerbaijan in Central Asia, including the fact he was getting paid -- his only paid mission to date. Also, because the mission was headed by a private company, Land O'Lakes, he assumed it would be better organized than missions arranged by public agencies.

"I felt Land O'Lakes was going to be different and more organized, and they certainly were," he said.

"The people there really listened," he said. "You can always tell from the questions they ask whether they are getting what you say."

Mehlenbacher and Penhallegon, who have also traveled extensively to the Caucasus States of Central Asia in recent years, said growers there have provided Oregon hazelnut growers with good breeding material, including some resistant to Eastern filbert blight.

The lethal fungal disease is widely viewed as the biggest threat to hazelnut production in Oregon.

McDonald said the trips also teach him lessons about his own hazelnut production.

"There is always a great interchange of ideas," he said. "We get to understand what other people are doing in hazelnuts.

"We often bring back ideas that we should maybe try here," he said. "Some of them work and some of them don't.

"But it gets you thinking about how you're doing things on your own farm," McDonald said.

Peter McDonald

Age: 69

Home: Wilsonville, Ore.

Education: Bachelor of arts degree in botany, Brown University; master's degree in forestry, Duke University

Family: Wife, Jill; and two grown children

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