Hazelnuts prove to be perfect crop for this farm

Craig Reed/For the Capital Press Elin and Bill Miller, owners of Umpqua NutFarm in the Umpqua, Ore., area, check out the growth of buds on a hazelnut pollination tree in their orchard in mid-March. The Millers have retired from corporate positions and have become Ennis hazelnut growers in the last several years.

UMPQUA, Ore. — Elin Miller wanted to plant wine grapes.

But after several conversations with others already in the wine business, Elin and Bill Miller decided a vineyard would need more maintenance and management than they had time for while still working in their corporate careers.

So the couple made the decision to plant hazelnut trees on the property that had been planted in prune trees back in 1908 by William Kamp, Bill Miller’s grandfather.

“Elin didn’t get her way,” Bill Miller said. “But we’re very happy with the hazelnuts.”

“Exceedingly happy,” Elin Miller added with a laugh.

Today, the Millers’ UmpquaNut Farm consists of a 36-acre orchard between the Umpqua River and its tributary, Calapooya Creek. Eighteen acres were planted in 2002 with bare root cuttings and another 18 acres were planted the following year.

In 2006, the orchard’s first harvest of Ennis hazelnuts yielded about 10,000 pounds. After several years of maturity and growth, the orchard’s recent 2014 harvest totaled about 144,000 pounds of clean and dry nuts. The Millers market their crop to Northwest Hazelnut, whose headquarters are in Hubbard, Ore.

“The market (price) has steadily increased since we planted the orchard,” Bill Miller said. “The trend with nuts in general — walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts — in the last several years is that more people are realizing the health benefits of consuming nuts.

“There’s also been market expansion as more countries are buying a lot more nuts,” he added.

Before becoming nut farmers, both Bill and Elin Miller had many agricultural experiences.

Bill Miller is a Roseburg, Ore., native who worked on his Uncle LaVerne Murphy’s sheep and forage farm as a youngster. While a college student in 1967, he helped his father remove the prune trees and transition the land over to grain and alfalfa production.

After graduating from Oregon State University in 1968, Bill Miller worked as an agriculture teacher for two years in Portland Public Schools before a 35-year career in the agricultural chemical industry in California. He retired in 2005 and moved to the nut farm in 2006.

Elin Miller was a city kid in Mesa, Ariz., but got involved in FFA in high school. She had floraculture projects and then during the summers of her college years, she worked in Arizona cotton fields. She was elected to a national FFA office in 1979 and took a year off from college to represent the organization in its western region.

After graduating from the University of Arizona in 1982, Elin Miller had numerous jobs through the years: Working for Shell Chemical Co. in its ag division, executive director of the Western Agriculture Chemical Association, global vice president of public affairs for Dow Chemical, director of conservation for California, regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency for Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Idaho, and president and CEO of a spinoff of Chevron’s ag division.

Although she retired from the corporate working world in 2009, she continues to be on several boards, including the National FFA Foundation. She’s the chairman of that board with a three-year commitment through 2016.

In retirement, the Millers are farming land that’s been in the family for over 100 years. They inherited 20 acres and purchased another 20 acres from relatives. It was then a matter of doing research, asking questions and deciding what next to do with the land that had been leased out for several years to a neighboring farmer.

“Hazelnuts are just not as complex as grapes,” Elin Miller admitted.

“The hazelnuts have done very well for us,” Bill Miller said.

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