Job that got away leads to a better one: farming

Bruce Hunt, of Hunt's Hazelnuts in Gervais, Ore., and sells about one-third of the nuts he produces on his 28 acres direct to the public and sells the remaining two-thirds to area processors. The farm is a staple at the indoor Salem Public Market.

Gervais, Ore. — Looking back, it was the job he didn’t get that set up his career in farming.

Bruce Hunt of Hunt’s Hazelnuts in Gervais, Ore., said he initially was disappointed when he was turned down for an apprenticeship at a foundry. Today, he said: “As far as I am concerned, in my working career, the best thing that ever happened was not getting that apprenticeship.”

A couple of things happened afterward that set him on his way to his current position as owner and operator of a successful value-added hazelnut operation. He moved to Alaska and met his wife, Phyllis. And he took over his family’s small hazelnut farm when his father became ill.

When he graduated from high school, Hunt said he never intended to return to the family farm.

“I said, no way am I farming,” he said.

Four years into his stay in Alaska, during an exceptionally cold winter, Hunt and his wife, Phyllis, decided maybe farming in Oregon wasn’t so bad.

One of the first things the young couple did when returning to the farm in 1976 was increase the number of acres in production. Bruce and Phyllis, who works off the farm as a tax consultant, initially decided to try their hand at vegetable production.

“It was just a lot of work,” Hunt said, “and the same equipment that works for growing row crop doesn’t work worth a darn for growing orchard, and vice versa.”

By 1980, the Hunts had backed out of the produce business and had doubled the farm’s hazelnut acreage, going from 14 acres in hazelnuts to 28. Shortly after that, the Hunts were adding value to their nuts and selling them direct to the public.

“One year, the price of filberts to the grower went down a dime a pound and the price in the store went up 20 cents a pound,” Hunt said. “I said, ‘There is something wrong with this picture.’”

Today, Hunt is a fixture at the indoor Salem Public Market, 1240 Rural Ave., SE, where the farm has never missed a Saturday in 28 years, and his product line has expanded to where he now sells hazelnut pancake mix, hazelnut syrup, hazelnut butter, candy-coated hazelnuts and several varieties of roasted nuts.

Overall, the farm retains control over about one-third of its nuts, and sells the remaining two-thirds to processors.

Asked if he enjoys retailing, Hunt said: “I do. It is a little more nerve-wracking now with the concerns that the (Food and Drug Administration) has about bacteria in the product. The concept of, ‘Well, I’ve never had a problem,’ doesn’t work anymore. And the record-keeping has increased exponentially compared to what it used to be.”

As for the orchard work, Hunt said he also enjoys that. He’s been aggressively pruning trees in recent years to stay ahead of eastern filbert blight, or at least keep it at bay.

With the arsenal of chemicals now at his disposal and with good pruning, he believes he can keep the orchard productive for another decade.

By then, he’ll be ready to retired from a profession that as a teenager he in “no way” was ever going to enter.

Hunt’s Hazelnuts

Owners: Bruce and Phyllis Hunt

Location: Gervais, Ore.

Farm history: Trees originally planted in the early 1960s. Hazelnut acreage doubled in 1980

Farm size: 28 acres

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