by SUSAN MANN
University of Guelph researchers and others involved in establishing a commercial hazelnut crop in Ontario are trying a new approach to setting up the supply.
Since the beginning of the project they have been working with the crop’s largest potential buyer in the province, chocolate maker Ferrero Rocher based in Brantford. The company opened for business in 2006 and currently imports 6,000 tonnes of hazelnuts a year, mainly from Turkey.
Project developers are working to establish other markets in addition to Ferrero, including potential markets for the shells.
Gord Surgeoner, CEO of Ontario Agri-Food Technologies, says it was critical to involve the customer from the start. “This whole project is about starting with the customer.”
He explains that Ferrero is a privately held European company and Europeans treat the production system very differently. Their main criterion is quality and that’s far ahead of price. They will work with a supplier to develop that quality. If a supplier meets the quality specifications and then the price “they’re happy to work with them and establish long-term relationships,” he says. “The key here is they would prefer to buy it (hazelnuts) locally.”
Bruce Thurston, president of the Society of Ontario Nut Growers, says the potential in Ontario is for farmers to grow 20,000 to 40,000 acres. Currently, 50 acres are grown here, mainly going to farm-gate sales.
Dr. Adam Dale, who is with the University of Guelph’s department of plant agriculture, says research is focused on finding varieties available now that are resistant to eastern filbert blight, produce a consistent crop, have good quality nut flavour and meet Ferrero’s shape specifications. Eastern filbert (another name for hazelnuts is filberts) blight is a fungus that gets into young trees and can kill a tree within three to five years.
Dale and his team began planting trees in 2008. It takes six to seven years before there’s a full crop. Dale says they’re also micro propagating several different varieties and “working on a way to grow those micro propagated plantlets very rapidly so we can get big trees out as soon as we possible can.”
Their goal is to produce enough trees to plant 100 acres of hazelnut trees by 2012 and at least 100 acres each year after that.
Another phase of the project involves securing funding to make the trees available to growers, Dale says: “How do we take the risk off the growers until we know what the right varieties are?”
Martin Hodgson, the Society’s hazelnut research director, says with the exception of eastern filbert blight, “it’s almost impossible kill hazelnut trees.” He’s had experience growing the trees on sandy soil near Cortland. He mowed the grass in between the trees and used a little fertilizer but didn’t irrigate. He says “they survived the summer drought that we’ve experienced in this area. That can be two months without rain.”
Potential growers need to keep in mind the business projections show that it takes 10 years to break even with this new crop. “But then the crop is profitable for the next 30 to 40 years,” Dale notes. “It’s a very long term commitment.”
Another benefit to the crop is the tree, really a tall shrub, is it’s very good at carbon sequestration. “They will sequester carbon into their trunks,” Dale says.
Elliott Currie, associate professor at the university’s business school, says there’s the potential to generate about $15,000 to $20,000 in income on 10 acres of hazelnuts. He bases his estimate on 220 to 260 seedlings per acre. But there wouldn’t any income during the first five years.
Anyone interested in hearing about the potential for hazelnuts in Ontario can attend a meeting March 31 at the university’s Simcoe Research Station. You can register by calling 519-763-6160, extension 116. The cost is $20. BF