The Organic Hazelnut Growers Association started this year to bring awareness to organic hazelnuts.
EUGENE, Ore. — Eleven years ago, Linda Perrine left the tech world and a career with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to buy a neglected 32-acre farm.
She turned the farm, which she named Honor Earth Farm, into an orchard where she produces organic Casina and Willamette hazelnuts.
Perrine is one of only a handful of organic hazelnut growers. Although 99 percent of U.S. hazelnuts are grown in Oregon, less than 1 percent are organic. In 2016 — the most recent year for which numbers are available — farms in the United States harvested 346 tons of hazelnuts, bringing in $1,540,558.
A stark contrast to the 44,000 tons that conventional hazelnut producers harvested in 2016 worth $118.8 million.
To bring awareness to organic hazelnuts and the concerns of the smaller organic growers, Perrine helped start the Organic Hazelnut Growers Association in 2017. Since then, the association has moved to become a board-led cooperative, where Perrine is now president.
Eventually, the cooperation wants to change it’s name to Oregon Organic Hazelnuts, which is also their promotional theme. The plan is to create a new cooperative under that name, move the members, and dissolve the first organization.
There are seven hazelnut producers and three food companies included in the cooperative.
“Co-ops have been done a lot in the past, but have gone to the wayside in the past 20 to 30 years,” Perrine said. “In our situation, it’s the exact right thing we want to be. We want to market our hazelnuts from the co-op, and have our own processing plant.”
Processing has been the biggest challenge that organic hazelnut producers have encountered. Perrine said there are only a few organic nut processors in the area and it costs more because the nuts are not uniform in size so they take more time to sort and shell. One of their goals is to build their own processing facility, and they are working on a fundraising campaign to raise $1.5 million.
“Just the processing itself is a 1.5 million dollar project, plus pasteurization,” she said. “The costs are extravagantly expensive. Nobody understands what it takes to turn a nut from an orchard into an inspected grade kernel that is guaranteed food safe.”
By the end of 2018, the cooperative wants to finalize the business plan for pursuing the processing facility; however, they first need to determine their tax structure, and are consulting with lawyers to determine the best path for their cooperative to take.
Another benefit of adding a processing center Perrine said, is they can finally create a structure for organic hazelnut assessments. These assessments, or processing taxes, goes back into the hazelnut industry to pay for promotion, research and office staff. For years, there hasn’t been a reliable structure for the organic side.
“I’m happy to contribute,” Perrine said. “(The cooperative) doesn’t want to be a thorn in their side. We want to be part of the overall hazelnut industry, but focused on organic. I think they’re happy to have that and wanted to have that secretly.”
Although generally, certified organic growers have a higher profit opportunity than conventional growers, it depends on the method of selling a farmer chooses, Nathan Kroeker, another founding member and spokesman for the association, said.
In-shell organic nuts sell wholesale for about $3.40 a pound, he said. But custom processing returns the kernels to the farmer who can sell them directly to consumers for about $8 a pound or for up to $20 a pound at retail stores such as Market of Choice or Whole Foods.
Those prices, however, don’t appeal to everyone.
“To stand at my booth and explain to each and every customer why nuts — especially hazelnuts — were so expensive, they don’t understand,” Perrine said. “It’s each customer that doesn’t understand. They think they’re being gouged.”
That’s why it’s important for Perrine, that the cooperative also makes strides in organic hazelnut education. On their website, oregonorganichazelnuts.com, they include a synopsis on the processing steps, but Perrine wants to go further.
“I want that page painted in gory details about what the nut travels through,” she said. “The industry doesn’t want to talk about it.”
Along with adding more information to the website, the Organic Hazelnut Growers Association wants to put on workshops to accompany their annual tours of Oregon hazelnut farms.
“We’re trying to shift thinking and raise awareness of Oregon grown organic hazelnuts,” Perrine said.
According to Kroeker, there are three reasons to be organic: ecological benefits, food safety and profit opportunity. He said that he’s a mix of all three.
“(Organic growers) care about the lands and sustainability,” he said. “Some will say organic hazelnut production is near impossible given the obstacles of the actual farming management.”
Obstacles he has heard from conventional farmers include weed control, eastern filbert blight, filbert worm and organic nitrogen limitations.
The environment is important to Perrine, who harvests 90 percent of her nuts, but leaves 10 percent on the ground as her way to “give back to the wildlife.” She is proud of the environment she has created on her farm, and tries to be welcoming to the insects, birds of prey and coyotes.
“I’m creating habitat for wildlife to live with me,” she said.
Perrine joked that she spends most of her time mowing the orchard to keep the ground harvestable. She said the ground cover keeps the nuts cleaner when she brings them in. One of her other harvesting strategies is using a leaf blower to gather the nuts.
To combat pests and diseases, she sets out traps and prunes her trees often. She believes that the she shouldn’t let the branches get to the point of growing lichen, and to stop the spread of eastern filbert blight she cuts and burns infected branches.
Another organic hazelnut farm in the area is My Brothers’ Farm in Creswell, Ore, run by Taylor Larson, Organic Hazelnut Growers Association vice president. The farm has 320 acres, and raises over 2,000 hazelnut trees, along with cider apple trees, pigs and bison, according to the website. Larson specializes in Yamhill, Sacajawea, McDonald and Wepster hazelnut varieties and mixes nut and apple trees in the same orchard.
“It stops disease pressure and breaks up pests,” he said.
After harvest, Larson runs his pigs through the orchard to eat the remaining hazelnuts. For the future, however, he is looking into ways of harvesting the nuts from the tree instead of from the ground, using a machine that shakes the nuts out.
“Each farm has unique needs,” Kroeker said. “There’s all kinds of ways; do what works for you; innovate your way.”
The Organic Hazelnut Growers Association is willing to work with a farm’s specific needs or wants. Although Perrine wants growers to market their product through the cooperative and use stickers to promote outreach, she said it’s not a requirement.
“We want farms who have been selling their own product to shift their thinking toward a co-op, but we also want
to support farms who want to sell 100 percent of their nuts,” she said. “There are going to be be free and fine to do that, but one of the advantages of having a co-op lot in today’s processing world is to aggregate the nuts in one lot and raise the total volume.”
Perrine said at the end of the day, she doesn’t want the organic industry to be the “nuisance farms” in the big world of conventional hazelnuts, and hopes the Organic Hazelnut Growers Association cooperative will be the solution.