Hazelnuts are endemic to Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest. American hazelnut (Corylus americana) is widely adapted, but is primarily found on open sites on sandy soils. Yields can be high, though the nuts tend to be small with thick shells. Beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta) is more shade tolerant and can be found in the understory on more mesic soils. Yields are generally low and kernel size is small. Though the nuts from both species are edible (and quite tasty), they are not widely grown by farmers except in wildlife or conservation plantings. Hazelnuts are big business elsewhere in the world, particularly in Turkey where the majority of global production occurs. Production is from selections of European hazelnut (Corylus avellana), which produce high yields of large nuts with thin shells.
In the United States, current hazelnut production is limited almost exclusively to the Willamette Valley of Oregon where there is roughly 80,000 acres of production, more than half of which has been planted in the last five years in response to growing global demand for hazelnuts. There has been an active breeding program in Oregon with a number of high quality cultivar releases. Though early adopter growers in the Upper Midwest have tried growing these cultivars in the Upper Midwest, they are not sufficiently well adapted to our region to support commercial production. First, they are not winter hardy and growers that have tried them regularly experience dieback from cold injury. Second, they are not sufficiently resistant to Eastern Filbert Blight, a fungus that is endemic to the Upper Midwest and is lethal to susceptible genotypes.
Instead of the wild American and Beaked species or the European varieties, growers in the Upper Midwest are growing hybrid hazelnuts, which are typically offspring from crosses between American and European hazelnuts. The goal of these crosses is to combine the disease resistance and winter-hardiness of American hazelnut with the nut size and productivity of the European hazelnut. Badgersett Research Corporation (Canton, MN) and Forest Agriculture Enterprises (Viola, WI) sold thousands of hybrid seedlings to early-adopter growers in the 1990s and 2000s. As of 2010, survey work found nearly 200 growers with 40,000+ plants in total. Forest Ag is still selling seedlings. Badgersett is no longer in business, but the Experimental Farm Network is selling seedlings from the Badgersett breeding populations.
In 2007, the University of Minnesota and University of Wisconsin formed the Upper Midwest Hazelnut Development Initiative (UMHDI) to better understand the production potential of these plantings and assist with developing improved germplasm. Field trials found that although the average yields of these plantings were too low to support commercial production, there were individual plants with excellent yield and nut quality traits. These top plants were evaluated at multiple locations from 2009 to 2017 and the best of the best were chosen as the "UMHDI 1st Generation Selections". Propagation is currently underway to get this material out to growers. The UMHDI has also been making new crosses among these best plants to release even better material sometime in the future. A full description of available plant material for the Upper Midwest can be found at the "Buy Plants" page of the UMHDI website.
In addition to germplasm improvement, the UMHDI has been working to support the emerging industry. Research has shown that straddle-type blueberry pickers can work well to harvest hazelnuts with some modifications to material handling. The UMHDI Hazelnut Processing Accelerator in Ashland, WI is a fully-licensed hazelnut processing facility available to any grower that needs help turning their in-shell hazelnuts into saleable kernel. The American Hazelnut Company was formed in 2014 and is a grower-owned processing and marketing company that aggregates member-grown hazelnuts, turns them into value-added products, and sells to markets across WI and MN.
Hazelnuts are a globally traded commodity with an annual market value of nearly $5 billion. Private consulting firms predict a compound annual growth rate of 6.7% in the 2020s. In response to the growth, the Oregon industry is rapidly expanding having added nearly 10,000 acres of new production annually from 2015-2018. Land constraints are now limiting Oregon expansion and the search is on for new production regions.
Despite a strong upside potential in commodity markets, growers in the Upper Midwest are unlikely to participate in these markets given the low initial production acreage and volumes. Large food companies such as Mars, Inc. and General Mills are interested in buying Midwest-grown hazelnuts, but until production reaches thousands of acres such markets aren't an option. Instead, growers will focus on smaller and direct markets such as farmers markets, online, CSAs, retail coop grocery stores, and smaller chains. These are all markets growers will need to establish themselves or in cooperation with other growers. The American Hazelnut Company, located in Gays Mills, WI, is currently buying in-shell hazelnuts from member and non-member growers. As with any perennial woody crops, the market conditions at the time of harvest could be very different than at the time of planting.
Growers in the Upper Midwest currently have three options of what to plant. Option 1 is to plant cultivars of European hazelnuts. However, this is not recommended as the plants are likely to die from winter injury and/or eastern filbert blight. Option 2 is to plant wild-type American or Beaked hazelnut. The seedlings are relatively cheap and are available from the DNR. The plants are well adapted to the Upper Midwest and will grow well, but the yields and kernel quality are not high enough for commercial production. Option 3a is to plant seedlings of hybrid hazelnuts. Because each plant originates from a seed (seedling), growers should expect highly variable production. Option 3b is to plant cultivars of hybrid hazelnuts. These improved and consistent performers are currently in propagation and not yet available to growers. More information about available plant material can be found at the UMHDI website.
The vast majority of hazelnut production in the world is from the European hazelnut (Corylus avellana). The species and it's cultivars are grown as small trees by removing basal sprouts and suckers multiple times per year. Nuts fall out of the tree canopy when ripe and are harvested off the ground with a combination of sweepers, blowers, and vacuums. Growers in the Midwest are taking a different approach. Instead of small trees, hazelnuts in the Midwest are grown as shrubs and nut clusters are removed from the shrubs before the nuts fall out of the husk using straddle-type harvesters. The model is very similar to high-bush blueberries.
Establishment of a hazelnut planting is relatively straightforward. Hazelnuts are planted in rows with in-row plant spacing of 4-6 ft. Bareroot dormant plants are planted in the spring and containerized plants are planted in the fall. Row spacing will depend on harvest method. If using self-propelled harvesters row spacing is 12-15 ft. If using pull-behind harvesters, which need a driving lane, rows spacing is alternating 12ft and 15ft. The UMHDI's Hazelnuts 101 Fact Sheet Series provides detailed information on establishment and production.
An overview of the UMHDI from 2013. A bit dated, but still informative.
An overview of the emerging hazelnut industry in the Upper Midwest...as of 2018.
Skip ahead to 6:15 to avoid the technology fumble. A nice overview though from Feb 2022.
Background information and hazelnut production in the Upper Midwest.
Information on feeding hazelnuts to pigs and how it may affect meat quality.
Day 1 of the 2021 Hazelnut Growers Conference.
Day 2 of the 2021 Hazelnut Growers Conference.
Day 3 of the 2021 Hazelnut Growers Conference.