Before 2009, Jay Thompson and his father, Tim, farmed only grass seed.
The recession, which hit the grass seed and nursery industries especially hard, forced them to diversify.
“It happened to coincide with some of the first releases of new hazelnut varieties coming out of Oregon State touting blight resistance,” Jay Thompson said.
It seemed a good fit and every other year through last fall they replaced chunks of grass seed land with hazelnuts.
The Thompsons were among the first to plant Jefferson, a variety now occupying 86 acres of their 800-acre farm east of Pratum, Ore., in the Willamette Valley. In addition, they put in 19 acres of Dorris, 56 acres of McDonald and 10 acres of Yamhill.
“There’s a lot of potential,” Thompson said. “We were hoping this would be the year we tipped over the break-even point of recouping our investment, but with the decline in price I think we just got pushed off for another year or two.”
With the past two years’ price reduction Thompson believes this year will see an adequate supply of most varieties except OSU’s most recent releases: McDonald, Wepster and PollyO.
“Four or five years ago you’d have to get on a list about two years in advance,” he said. “We had to be committed far in advance, and with some of the more popular varieties that stayed true. If we wanted Jefferson or Yamhill we could wait close to 6 months before we wanted to plant and be OK.”
Thompson, the fifth generation on the farm, mitigates taking the farmland out of production by planting grass seed crops in the harvest lanes the first three years.
Once they began harvesting their first Jeffersons the Thompsons realized how late-maturing the variety is.
“We thought we could be in real big trouble,” he said. “We’ve got some orchards on slopes and if we’re still harvesting the end of October and early November it’s going to be very difficult. We also wanted to break up the maturity window.”
Dorris was touted as maturing a week earlier; in reality it turned out to be only a few days. While not a pretty growing tree, Dorris has a unique flavor that may warrant a specialty market, he said.
They shifted to McDonald because it matures three to four weeks ahead of Jefferson and has the highest shell-out percentage of the newer varieties; about 50-52 percent vs. Barcelona at 38-40 percent.
“It might be speculative to think there’ll be a huge swing toward only kernel varieties being planted but I think a larger percentage will go that way,” he said. “The high shell-out kernel varieties have been catching a better premium.”
The Thompsons wish they’d planted some Yamhill earlier, but Jefferson was getting a lot of attention at the time and the Yamhill tree they’d seen at Oregon State was short, twice as wide as it was tall with branches hanging on the ground.
“It looked like a cultural management nightmare,” Thompson said. “We should have gone around and talked to other growers because there are ways to manipulate these trees. You may have more pruning work in the early years to force them to go up, but the nursery I got them from this fall is also a large producer with 15-year-old Yamhill trees and they are getting a phenomenal yield.”
The variety also boasts a high shell-out rate and early maturity for their sloped terrain.