Going nuts on a new farm crop

Dave Ferguson is planting three to four acres of nut tree seedlings this spring, part of a fledgling movement to establish a hazelnut industry in Ontario.

“The crop is new but the market is there,” Ferguson said. “The question is, can we get enough people together to get the infrastructure in place.”

Hazelnuts, also known as filberts, are sold whole, used to make praline and often mixed with chocolate.

Ferraro, the makers of Kinder Surprise, Ferraro Roche and Nutella, built a plant in Brantford, Ont. in 2006 to be the centre of its North American operations.

But the company is importing its hazelnut supply, primarily from Turkey, because it lacks a stable, locally-grown source.

“They’re looking for hazelnuts.” Ferguson said. “In the world right now, everyone is planting hazelnuts.”

Turkey produces about 75% of worldwide production and the U.S. states of Oregon and Washington have developed growing agribusinesses.

Ferguson said a commercial hazelnut operation in Sarnia-Lambton would need a number of growers pooling resources to be viable.

Though the variety that Ferguson is planting has proven resistant to filbert blight – a common problem – it’s unclear how it will fare in winters like the current one with temperatures plummeting to -25 C.

Nevertheless, hazelnuts are a potentially lucrative new cash crop in Ontario.

A study done by the University of Guelph concluded the returns would be high, with growers netting revenue in excess of $2,000 an acre.

The newly formed Ontario Hazelnut Association signed a memorandum of understanding last fall with the Ferrero Group to develop a domestic industry. A March 25 symposium in Brantford will address concerns and opportunities for growers, with the goal of planting hundreds of acres of new trees this year.

“Hazelnuts can be grown anywhere in Ontario that apples are, and the revenue potential for this crop is significant,” said John Kelly, Vice President of Erie Innovation and Commercialization.

Ferguson, the son of former federal Agriculture Minister Ralph Ferguson, travelled with his wife to Oregon last month to learn more from growers.

“In five or six years I want to retire but not sell the farm,” he said. “So I asked myself, what can I do with my small fields, still produce something, keep myself busy, and make some money?”

Anyone interested in planting hazelnuts or learning more can contact Erie Innovation and Commercialization at 519-426-7913.

– George Mathewson