Rich Birkemeier calls his family’s Birkemeier Farms an enterprise with a “multi-generational legacy.”
It started with Rich’s father, Dick, and 4 acres of what was then called a “filbert farm” near Canby, Ore.
Rich and his son, Loren, Loren’s wife, Juliana, and a nephew, Dan Nelson, are now the principals in the Birkemeier operation, which has grown to encompass 270 acres of producing trees, a nursery operation and a partnership in a processing plant.
The history stretches back to the farming operations of Rich’s grandfather, Dan, and father, Richard.
Richard Birkemeier’s first harvest of hazelnuts came in 1962, in the same month of the Columbus Day Storm, which battered parts of the Northwest with winds of up to 170 mph. The farm was one of the few to get a crop that year, but the storm decimated the orchards, with half the trees being lost.
The family slowly rebuilt the orchards. Birkemeier Farms and Birkemeier Nursery LLC partnered in 1976 with two other families to create the Willamette Hazelnut Growers, called “the longest running hazelnut supplier in America.”
Rich Birkemeier, 70, has been active in the industry more than 40 years. He was honored as Nut Grower of the Year in 1988 and has served on the Oregon Hazelnut Commission for more than 12 years.
His wife, Nancy, 69, keeps the books and manages the sales for the farm’s nursery business, which has been in operation as a separate corporation since 2015.
Rich said he and his family have the advantage of experience from the perspective of growers, nursery owners and processors.
“We became processors when the Dundee Co-op fell apart in the 1970s,” he said. In the early 1980s “we were among the first in Oregon to find Eastern Filbert Blight in our Ennis orchards, so we became nurserymen when there were no options available.”
He says that though the hazelnut industry has been growing since that original EFB threat, it’s why they established the nursery, which was incorporated in 2015.
“I basically had to learn how to propagate new varieties from Oregon State University just to stay in business,” he said. “I still don’t think of myself as a nurseryman, I think of myself as a nut grower, but it was an opportunity.
“It was unfortunate that we were one of the first in the valley that got EFB, but it turned into a real fortunate thing in that we were able to start a new business and supply trees to other people who came along afterwards.”
Loren Birkemeier, 39, says the nursery-stock sales are cyclical and depends on interest in the crop in any particular year, much like “prospecting.”
“We have the ability to produce almost a half a million trees if we had to” through Birkemeier Nursery, he said. “We are at about 120,000 trees sold this year, which was down from last year but has been as high as 400,000 trees.”
Rich’s publicity materials are sprinkled with equal references to the words hazelnut and filbert, owing to his status as a longtime grower wishing to keep a remnant of the old while embracing the new.
“A global image needs to not have a regional nickname,” Loren said.
“Hazelnuts grow on filbert trees,” Rich added with a smile.