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The hope for a hazelnut industry continues

May 3, 2010  By Hugh McElhone

Research continues in Ontario into developing a hazelnut hybrid that is commercially viable and resistant to Eastern Filbert Blight (EFB), a disease that virtually wiped out the bushy-type trees that were introduced by settlers from Europe centuries ago.

Belonging to the genus, Corylus, and a member of the birch family, hazelnuts, also known as filberts, were common in southern Ontario until EFB arrived.

While devastating there, the blight was not able to crest the Rocky Mountain Range until recently. With stringent import controls in place, Oregon remains North America’s main producer, while Washington State and British Columbia also supply the market, said Todd Leuty with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA).

Of the international market, Turkey produces 79 per cent of the world’s hazelnuts, followed by Italy at 16 per cent, and North America at five per cent.

“We can grow hazelnuts in Ontario, and they grow very well, unless they get the blight,” said Martin Hodgson, research chair with the Society of Ontario Nut Growers (SONG).

Hodgson planted 5,000 hazelnut trees from 1994 to 1997 on his farm near Tillsonburg, Ont., and they started off very well. “You can’t kill them. They’ll tolerate drought and even grow on the Norfolk sand plain, which has less than one per cent organic matter,” he said.

The trees were yielding about 10 pounds each after about 10 years, and Hodgson estimated that at 40 per cent yield he could make money. He then noticed the first signs of EFB in 1999. By 2003, all but 200 of the trees had died.

Since then, Hodgson has grouped the survivors together and is propagating the suckers at the base of the trees and evaluating them for EFB resistance. “It’s good that the trees are obviously resistant, does it mean that they’ll be good trees,” he asked. He explained they must still have desirable characteristics and produce high yields of good quality nuts.

Research work into EFB-resistant hybrid trees was started 15 years ago, and it may take another 10 years before an industry in Ontario can be up and running, said Dr. Adam Dale, University of Guelph, who works at the OMAFRA Horticultural Research Station near Simcoe, Ont.

Currently, there are three variety trials underway at the Simcoe station and two in Vineland. “We have five varieties being cultured now. We want rapid growth,” said Dr. Dale, who hopes 100 acres of trees will be available by 2012.

At the Vineland Research Innovation Centre (VRIC), Dr. Mike Brownbridge said they are meeting the challenges. His research team has the advantage of a greenhouse with retractable roof that they are using to test the hybrids. “It speeds growth significantly and adds two months to the growing season,” he said. “Niagara is also a unique area with a moderate climate and different soil type (from Simcoe).”

The first trees were planted at the Vineland station in 2009, and there are currently 12 varieties from different sources and different geographic regions. The trees are measured for height, trunk diameter, cold tolerance as well as catkin production.

Catkins are the long strands of flowers that open in early spring and rely on wind for pollination. Such flowers are vulnerable to a late spring frost. From catkins, a cluster of one to five nuts is produced and encased in a tubular-like husk.

“We are trying to identify the best varieties for Niagara,” said Dr. Brownbridge. “We had a mild winter, but year two we will be more discriminating in our selections.” Along with resistance to EFB, the hybrids must also produce high quality nuts desired by consumers and commercial processors alike.

Not far from the Simcoe station, some 30 kilometres away in Brantford, Ont., stands the manufacturing plant of Italian candy-making giant Ferrero SpA. Most notable among its product line up are the breath mint Tic Tac, the sweet chocolaty spread Nutella, and the popular nutty treat Ferrero Rocher.

Roberto Po

Adam Dale

The last two products are made primarily from chocolate and hazelnuts, a lot of hazelnuts. Last year, the Brantford plant processed some 10,000 tonnes of hazelnuts, all of them imported, mainly from Oregon and Washington.

If there were a hazelnut industry in the area, Ferrero would certainly be interested in buying locally grown nuts, said Roberto Po, production manager for Ferrero Canada.

He estimates that if a local industry were established it could produce one tonne per acre by year 10. The company is also banking on an industry being founded and it is spending $20 million in upgrades at the Brantford plant. “We are expanding. We can’t keep up,” he said.

Providing an overview of the company, Po said it was founded shortly after the Second World War by Pietro Ferrero, a baker with a special recipe for the chocolate spread and candy treats.

Since expanding internationally, Ferraro has grown considerably and last year the baker’s grandson (also named Pietro) was listed by Forbes magazine as number 28 among the world’s wealthiest. The company was also awarded first place for being the most reputable, edging out IKEA.

In 2009, Ferraro had $11 billion in sales and was ranked number four in confectionary sales globally. The company currently has 20,000 employees. Its plant in Brantford was laid down in 2004 and fully operational by 2006. Brantford employs 500 permanent staff and 900 seasonal workers during peak season. Brantford is rated as the number seven producer among the Ferraro facilities.

Of the company’s gross, Nutella sales grew to 20,000 tonnes last year. Canadians have been great consumers of Nutella for many years while it was generally unknown in the U.S. until last year, when, for the first time, U.S. sales surpassed Canadian numbers. “Nutella has never been advertised in the U.S. before but we’ll start promoting it this year,” said Po, who expects sales to skyrocket.

Anticipating Ferraro’s advertising push for Nutella sales in the U.S., the small U.S. company that has made the Nutella jars for North America, took a giant leap of faith and greatly expanded its jar operations so it is ready. According to Po, they are growing with our company. “We aim for quality, growth and commitment. That is our focus.”

Ferrero has a grading standard for quality with Q1 being the highest, followed by Q2 and Q3. “Quality is based on nut size, health, defects and shape,” said Po. The round Q1 nuts are used for the centre of the Rocher, while Q2 are crumbled and mixed with the outside chocolate layer.

Po expects most of the hazelnuts produced by the domestic industry will be Q3. “Q3s are used in Nutella. They are still good but they’re not ones or twos.” He added the advantage with Q3s is that they do not have to be blanched, unlike the other two grades.

Po explained that Ferrero itself does not do the shelling, sizing and grading: it is already done before it buys the hazelnuts. For the domestic industry to accomplish this task, a type of hazelnut co-operative is needed, similar to an apple grower’s co-operative, said Dr. Dale.

Such an organization would set one standard for all growers and undertake the primary processing, and all sales to Ferrero and the fresh market. Dr. Dale said the shells are also a valuable commodity for nursery and gardening products.

Dr. Dale is optimistic a hazelnut industry can be established but it will take some time, and some considerable co-operation. He wants to work with SONG members, private growers and commercial nurseries, with a liberal dose of collaboration among government researchers. “If we all work together, we can make this work,” he concluded.

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