By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
PORTLAND -- A vigorous new variety of hazelnut tree that's highly resistant to eastern filbert blight will soon be available to growers who want to supply the kernel market.
Oregon State University publicly released Wepster, the newest EFB-resistant hazelnut cultivar developed by breeder Shawn Mehlenbacher, at the Northwest Agricultural Show in Portland on Wednesday.
It's named after the Wepster family of Sheridan, Ore., to recognize their contributions to the hazelnut industry, such as helping to establish an endowed professorship for hazelnut research at OSU.
The cultivar is a more vigorous, higher-yielding alternative to Yamhill -- an EFB-resistant kernel variety released by OSU five years ago.
Higher vigor allows for easier management because growers don't have to prune the trees as much to keep their branches out of the way, said Mehlenbacher.
Otherwise, machinery is inhibited from harvesting nuts from beneath the orchard canopy, he said. "It's really tough to get the sweepers and harvesters underneath."
Wepster also generated fewer moldy kernels compared to Yamhill and other varieties during field trials.
During heavy crops, hazelnuts can sometimes fail to fill properly, but the Wepster variety appears less affected by the problem than Yamhill, Mehlenbacher said.
The breeding program has been aggressively trying to weed out trees prone to mold and defects, he said. "We sort through a lot of garbage to find the winner."
The variety produces nuts that are too small for in-shell sales and can instead be sold for use in chocolates and baked goods.
Northwest growers have been eagerly planting Jefferson -- a recently released in-shell variety -- that matures relatively late in the season, said Wayne Chambers, a grower and nurseryman from Albany, Ore.
Wepster will provide farmers with an extended harvest, as it matures earlier, he said.
Kernels also provide an alternative to the in-shell market, Chambers said. "Everyone's realizing there's adequate in-shell production."
Representatives of the Ferrero confectionery company urged growers at the Northwest Ag Show to diversify into the kernel market, as the firm expects its consumption to increase in coming years.
"We're looking for long-term relationships," said Stefano Gagliasso of Ferrero's procurement division. "We have to manage our future risks."
Similarly to other EFB-resistant varieties, Wepster acquired resistance to the disease from the Gasaway cultivar.
It also counts cultivars from Greece and Sicily among its ancestors, as well as the Barcelona variety that has long been a staple in Oregon.