Why Hazelnuts?

New Economic Opportunities

Hazelnut is a multi-use crop and the kernels, oils, and meal can be used in a broad range of food products like edible oils, spreadable nut butters, nut flours, and confections.  Early-adopter growers will likely process nuts into raw ingredients for sale to existing value-added processors or develop their own products.  The smaller kernels of American hazelnut and hybrids with European hazelnut may be preferred for use in trail mixes, nut clusters, and other products.  The genetic diversity within populations of American hazelnut, in particular, will provide a wide pallet of flavors and kernel characteristics enabling product differentiation and place-based marketing.  Beside food uses, the oil, shells, husks, and wood may have use as feedstock in bioenergy applications. With so many uses and so many markets, hazelnuts will provide many economic opportunities for growers and processors. 

A Heart Healthy Oil

Monounsaturated oils are a heart healthy oil and considered an essential component of a healthy diet.  American hazelnut is 81% oleic acid, making it one of the healthiest oils available.  Researchers are just beginning to explore the diversity of American hazelnut populations and it is likely there will be as many variations in flavor and color as there is with wine.  As such, there is great potential for growers in the Upper Midwest to create a source-identified differentiated product that can expand the pallete of American consumers, improve heart health, and put money in the pockets of growers.  Direct marketing of specialty hazelnut oils will likely be the first entry point for marketing Upper Midwest hazelnuts.   As production volumes grow and per unit production costs decline, growers will be able to access larger processing markets.

A Perennial Biofuel Crop

The same high oleic acid that makes hazelnut oil a superior eating oil, also makes it a superior feedstock for biodiesel and other bio-industrials.  Hazelnuts grown in Nebraska have shown the potential to yield twice as much oil per acre as soybeans.  American hazelnut oil, in particular, is 81% oleic acid.  The high percentage of unsaturated fatty acids results in a biodiesel with a cloud point of -19.3C compared to soybean derived biodiesel with a cloud point of -2.9C (Lane et al, 2012).  Most importantly, the perenniality of hazelnuts improves its sustainability through higher net energy gains and reduced soil erosion and nutrient loading in surface and ground water.  Hazelnut has the potential to be the first perennial oilseed crop for the Upper Midwest and could greatly improve the sustainability of biofuel production.

Productive Conservation

Expensive land set-aside and government conservation programs such as CRP and CREP are designed to protect the environment FROM agriculture.  A better option would be protecting the environment WITH agriculture.  In other words, crops that generate income for growers AND protect soil and water quality can protect our environment without costly government expenditures.  Hazelnuts are envisioned as a foundational species for such systems.  As a perennial shrub, hazelnuts hold soil, tightly cycle nutrients, and don't require annual tillage inputs.  The kernels have uses in food and fuel markets and the shells and stems have potential in biofuel markets.  The shrubs can be harvested mechanically and thus grown on a large scale.  Deployed in strategic plantings such as windbreaks, riparian buffers, or in alley-cropping systems, hazelnuts could truly chage the way we farm...and pay for agriculture. 

Feeding the World By Learning From Nature

Researchers and policy-makers are struggling with the coming challenge of feeding the world's population, which is expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050, without further degrading the soil and water on which we all depend.  An exciting area of agricultural research centers on the important ecological concept of niche space utilization.  In natural systems, often by random chance, plants and animals will exist where they can survive and reproduce.  This typically results in a great diversity of plants and animals in any given geographic space.  A tropical rain forest or tallgrass prairie are great examples.  If all of the various habitats (canopy layers, rooting depths, growing seasons, etc) are being utilized, then the system as a whole can be quite productive.  By applying this concept to agriculture we might be able to increase productivity while also doing a better job protecting soil and water.

The oak-savanah biome is a great model for designing agricultural systems in the Upper Midwest that maximize niche space utilization.  A carefully designed mix of nut producing trees, fruiting shrubs, grain producing grasses and legumes, and livestock might very well yield highly productive systems.  Hazelnuts are envisioned as a foundational species for such systems and are included in a number of "natural systems agriculture" trial plantings being established across the Upper Midwest.