B.C.’s hazelnut industry bounces back in a big way

Patient farmers could reap rewards from international buyers.

Credit: Mark Gibbon

Peter Andres had to destroy and replant his hazelnut orchard

Patient farmers could reap rewards from international buyers

For Peter Andres, torching what remained of his ravaged hazelnut trees was a last resort. Andres had been a prominent farmer in the B.C. hazelnut industry for more than two decades, but in 2011 a windblown spore called eastern filbert blight (EFB) struck his Agassiz orchard. At first, he chopped down infected trees. Within four years, the disease had become so pervasive that he burned the few survivors.

“It was 2008 when the first orchard in Chilliwack got hit, and I knew my farm was on the map for the next spread,” recalls Andres, former president of the BC Hazelnut Growers Association (BCHGA). “We spent $50,000 or more trying to cut down some of the [affected] trees on some of the farms, and we had some success slowing down the spread, but ultimately you can’t stop it.”

From 2006 through 2010, the B.C. hazelnut industry spanned 1,200 acres and produced more than a million pounds a year on average, according to the BCHGA. Easy-to-grow hazelnut trees were a favourite plant for hobby farmers, most of them in the Fraser Valley. But by 2015, EFB had wiped out the industry.

Now, thanks to the determination of farmers like Andres and some political will, B.C. hazelnuts are coming back. The 2018 harvest yielded 40,000 pounds, a number expected to grow exponentially in the next few years.

EFB first appeared in eastern North America before making its way to Oregon in the late 1980s. There, farmers began to find black spots, or cankers, on tree branches. What they didn’t know then is that by the time the fungus becomes visible, the tree has already been infected for a year or more, slowly dying from the inside out.

Oregonians jumped into action, developing sprays to ward off EFB while researchers bred a blight-resistant variety, which took 16 years. These efforts avoided a total collapse of the state’s hazelnut industry, which contributes 3 to 5 percent of global production and projects major expansion as farmers plant 8,000 acres of trees every year in the Willamette Valley.

The fungicides developed in Oregon weren’t permitted in B.C., so Andres and his fellow farmers did what they could to fight EFB, but ultimately they had to move on or start again. “I wanted to be proactive about it, so I went to Oregon State University and I arranged a program with them to bring blight-resistant trees,” Andres recalls. “But in order to get them across the border, we had to bring them in test tubes because we can’t bring a [hazelnut] tree over the border.”

Andres was one of the first to plant blight-resistant B.C. trees in 2011, but it can take five years before a hazelnut tree is ready to harvest, a long wait for most farmers, who could be investing in fast-growing crops like blueberries.

To give the struggling hazelnut industry a boost, last July the provincial government announced that it was allocating $300,000 over three years to subsidize cleaning out old orchards and growing new trees. The subsidy is meant to help farmers start growing hazelnuts, but the cost of trees isn’t the only deterrent; there’s also the cost of tying up the land while they wait for the harvest.

Cornel Van Maren, who leases part of his father’s 75-acre farm in Chilliwack, has planted 20 acres of hazelnut trees and plans to add 50 more. Without the family connection, getting into farming and planting a long-term crop like hazelnuts would be unsustainable, he says.

“Our neighbours aproached us to buy their property, and they said the price to beat is $100,000 an acre and I can’t pay that, so the big guys just keep getting bigger,” Van Maren explains. “Basically, it’s impossible for young people to start farming right now.”

Kevin Hooge sees a future in hazelnuts, which is why he recently bought Western Canada’s only processing plant for the nuts, Fraser Valley Hazelnuts in Chilliwack. But the industry is going through an awkward phase, given that obtaining blight-resistant trees takes so long.

“Right now, the biggest challenge is the supply of trees, and it’s turning people off,” Hooge says. “They want to go for it, but the hesitancy is the four- to five-year wait for crop and a two-year wait for trees. A lot of these people are retired farmers or people who want to slow down, and if they are in their early 50s, they won’t see a crop until their 60s, which is a deterrent.”

Still, the provincial Ministry of Agriculture reports that as of last fall, farmers had planted 8,254 EFB-resistant trees on 38 acres, bringing the B.C. hazelnut industry back up to 200 acres. That may be a far cry from past glory, but it’s a slow and steady recovery.

As demand for North American hazelnuts increases in countries like China, the top importer from the U.S., all that planting could pay off in the long run. Meanwhile, global confectionery giants such as Nutella maker Ferrero are taking steps to reduce their dependence on Turkey as a supplier. According to the Agriculture Ministry, the company has been sniffing around B.C. 

Money Tree

B.C. hobby farmers love hazelnuts for good reason. Hazelnut trees grow in less than ideal soil, and once established, they’re considered nearly drought-resistant, requiring little water or fertilizer. Their deep root systems also help prevent soil erosion and capture more carbon than those of other perennial crops.

In the 2018-19 season, Turkey accounted for 63 percent of global hazelnut production in a US$2.9-billion market that yielded some 458,875 tonnes.

Italy-based Ferrero, whose products include Nutella spread and Ferrero Rocher and Kinder Surprise chocolates, buys about 25 percent of the world’s hazelnuts.

Turkey’s volatile prices and shrinking crop have left Ferrero and other multinationals such as Mondelez International and Nestle seeking new pastures. Some Turkish hazelnut growers also stand accused of exploiting migrant workers including children.

Sources: Arbor Day Foundation, International Nut and Dried Fruit Council, Ferrero, Reuters, New York Times