It is sobering to think that efforts to develop a hazelnut industry in the eastern US go back to the early 1900s and here we are today, 119 years later, still without much of an industry. Why? The main reason is the biology of hazelnuts doesn't operate on the same time scale as we humans. Hazelnuts are found wild throughout the Upper Midwest, but unlike other woody crops, no one has found the perfect plant growing in the wild. If someone had found such a plant we'd long ago had an industry. Instead, we've had to breed a plant that can survive the winter and the native hazelnut pest, eastern filbert blight, while also producing enough nuts of sufficient size to make it worth harvesting and cracking. And therein has been the challenge. It simply takes a long, long time to breed a proven cultivar of a woody plant - 21 years to be exact. Twenty-one years is a long time in human history and many things conspire to get in the way of hazelnut breeding: kids, storms, illness, divorce, budget cuts, old age, you name it.
In 2007, we launched the Upper Midwest Hazelnut Development Initiative with the primary goal to get years of work by private and public hazelnut breeders across the finish line. The easy thing for amateur and professional breeders to do is make crosses between two good plants and grow out the seed. The hard thing is to stick around long enough to evaluate each of those offspring for 7-10 years, find the best one or two, vegetatively propagate them, and evaluate them at multiple locations for another 10 years. Only then do you have a proven cultivar. So, starting in 2007 we set to work finding the best of the offspring and in 2009 we established the first of our replicated performance trials.
At the 1st Annual Upper Midwest Hazelnut Growers Conference in 2010 in LaCrosse, we outlined the two main challenges we needed to address to launch the industry. First, we needed proven hazelnut cultivars. Second, we needed harvesting and post-harvest processing capacity to allow early-adopter growers to get product to market.
In the blink of an eye, here we are ten years later. The 10th Annual Upper Midwest Hazelnut Growers Conference will be held this March 8-9 in Eau Claire, WI and it's going to be an exciting conference....a celebration really. We will formally introduce the top 12 selections from the performance trials and present information on how to grow, harvest, and process hazelnuts. For early adopters that have been at every conference since 2010 this will be a chance to celebrate the work that we've all done. For those that have been lurking and waiting for the right time to get involved with hazelnuts, now is the time. Take a look at the conference brochure and register today!