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News / Life / Clark County Life

Ridgefield pear farmers going nuts — hazelnuts

Couple replace pear orchard with hazelnuts, hoping to cash in on their increasing popularity

By Andy Matarrese, Columbian environment and transportation reporter
Published: November 21, 2018, 6:00am
5 Photos
Rob Baur and his wife, Sue Marshall, walk a row of freshly planted hazelnut trees at Baurs Corner Farm in Ridgefield on Thursday. The family farm was originally a pear orchard but after losing money on pears, they decided to try something new.
Rob Baur and his wife, Sue Marshall, walk a row of freshly planted hazelnut trees at Baurs Corner Farm in Ridgefield on Thursday. The family farm was originally a pear orchard but after losing money on pears, they decided to try something new. Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian Photo Gallery

RIDGEFIELD — The Baur family farm outside of Ridgefield, when first planted in 1961, started as a pear orchard.

Farm co-owner Rob Baur remembered, when he was younger and the family was trying to figure out what to plant, an old German man tried to convince his father to plant hazelnuts instead of pears.

“Probably a good idea at the time,” he said.

That decade, eastern filbert blight, a fungal disease fatal to hazelnut trees, first popped up in the Northwest shortly after.

Farmers in Southwest Washington discovered the first cases, and the disease posed a serious threat to the industry in the United States as it moved south through Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the cradle of almost all hazelnut production in the country.

Filbert or hazelnut?

The confusion might exist only among a certain cohort of people from the Willamette Valley and its surroundings, but a filbert is, broadly, a regional name for a hazelnut.

Filbert is of French origin, according to the Oregon hazelnut growers’ industry office in Aurora, Ore., and the trees were likely first brought to Oregon by early French settlers.

The Oregon State University extension service posits the name was derived from the German term vollbart, for full beard, in reference to some hazelnut varieties where the husk entirely covers the nut. Others say the name comes from St. Philibert, whose feast is celebrated on Aug. 20, about the time the earliest hazelnuts ripen in England.

The word hazelnut is English, and is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word haesel, for bonnet, according to OSU.

In 1981, the Oregon Filbert Commission decided to go with the common standard and start emphasizing hazelnut, which, according to Loren Birkemeier of hazelnut-growing Birkemeier Farms in Newberg, Ore., was an economic consideration.

You don’t want to bet a few million pounds of product on an Italian food wholesaler’s command of regional English, he said.

“My dad says, ‘We grow filberts. We sell hazelnuts.’ ”

— Andy Matarrese

Researchers eventually found blight-resistant tree species, and workers planted 3,200 of them at the Baur farm earlier this month, making the farm among the few in Washington to resume hazelnut production in years.

“It’s really a huge milestone for us and our farm,” said Sue Marshall, co-owner and Baur’s wife.

They expect their first commercial harvest in five years, with a full production starting in 10.

Their farm grew pears until 2001, when the returns on the fruit dropped and they burned all the trees. Pears from Chile, Argentina and New Zealand arrive in the market during the middle of winter, Baur said, blowing out the market for the canning pears they once grew.

“Now with the global trade, you could buy pears all year long, so that affected the price,” he said.

When Baur’s parents died, ownership of the farm went to him, his brother and his two sisters. Baur and Marshall were the most interested in continuing the farm’s operation, and four years ago they bought out the siblings’ shares and moved onto the farm.

After several years of leasing out farmland, and another three years of research, they settled on hazelnuts, Marshall said.

They’ve attended regional hazelnut growers’ conferences, and worked extensively with experts from the Oregon State University extension service to get off to the best start possible, she said.

They thought about raising cattle, but weren’t interested in chasing cows and growing all that grass. They thought about specialty grains, but they don’t have the kind of irrigation needed, and then there’s the trouble of finding someone — a distillery or brewery — able to buy at scale.

Hazelnuts showed the most promise.

“It’s a growing market. It’s machine harvestable,” Baur said. “There’s reduced pruning and strain compared to what we were used to, with pears. And then we have the equipment — the forklifts and the sprayers and stuff from having the pear orchard, so we don’t have to buy all new equipment.”

Loren Birkemeier of hazelnut-growing Birkemeier Farms in Newberg, Ore., was hired to help plant the trees, and said they’re also a lower-maintenance crop that doesn’t take a ton of manpower.

“It’s a tractor job that you could do well into your 70s or 80s,” he said.

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“Nooo!” joked Baur. “We were going to retire!”

Naturally, there’s still risk, Baur said, pointing to tracks from hungry deer in the mud around the newly planted trees.

“I think you can’t farm without having trepidation,” Marshall said.

Although hazelnut acreage roughly doubled in Oregon over the past decade — up to 72,000 acres, thanks to new blight-resistant varieties — global factors have sent prices down for growers, the Associated Press reported this month.

China put 15 percent and 25 percent tariffs on the product from the U.S. in response to the Trump administration’s escalating trade war. Also, the value of Turkey’s currency dropped, flooding the market with cheap Turkish nuts.

That led growers to accept, for the first time, a three-tier price system at 62 cents per pound for in-shell hazelnut varieties, and between 81 and 91 cents per pound for “shell-out” varieties, which get more value for larger kernels, according to the Associated Press.

Still, Birkemeier said, global demand is high.

Ferrero SpA, the maker of Nutella and Ferrero Rocher candies, uses a reported quarter of the global supply of hazelnuts, and has bought out entire countries’ production, Birkemeier said.

“It’s growing very quick,” he said. “A lot of the restaurants are using them as fish breading or salad toppers, and it’s becoming much more mainstream, higher production, because it takes almost no water, takes very, very little fertilizer or chemical.”

“Other than that, it’s a tree and sits there and does its thing,” he said. “It’s not like a fruit tree where you really have to baby it every year.”

Due to the area’s climate, virtually all hazelnuts grown in the United States come from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, with about 1 percent from Washington, according to OSU’s extension service.

About 70 percent of world hazelnut production comes from Turkey, then about 20 percent from Italy, according to OSU. Spain, France, Georgia, Azerbaijan and the United States grow most of the rest.

There are a handful of growers in Washington, and Marshall said she’s heard of one or two other growers in the county.

Baur said they hope to build a strong, generational orchard their children can benefit from, but they also hope more Clark County farmers take a look at hazelnuts, leading to a “critical mass” of growers sharing equipment and expertise.

“I think in this county, if you want to have agriculture really survive and be viable you have to prove that you can, you know, make the money,” Marshall said.

Andy Matarrese: 360-735-4457; andy.matarrese@columbian.com; twitter.com/andy_matter

Columbian environment and transportation reporter