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1   They’re crazy nutritious and gluten-free. Hazelnuts are rich in vitamins (particularly vitamin E and B-complex groups of vitamins, including folates, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin) as well as dietary fiber. Like almonds, they are gluten-free. They also are rich in monounsaturated fatty acids such as oleic acid and linoleic acid, which help reduce LDL, the “bad” cholesterol, and increase HDL, the “good” cholesterol.

2   An exciting market beckons. Hazelnut oil serves various purposes in the kitchen (most notably as salad and cooking oil) as well as in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Kernels can be eaten fresh; used in baked goods, confections and other edibles; or ground for use in nut flours. An appetite is growing for spreadable hazelnut butters (Nutella, anyone?). And then there’s biofuel—the high oleic acid content makes hazelnuts an excellent feedstock for biodiesel and bio-industrial products.

3   They’re good for the environment. As a long-lived woody perennial, hazelnut bush plantings can be used to stabilize sensitive soils and erodible sites. Plantings do not have to be reestablished for decades. They can be closely associated with other high-diversity approaches to agriculture, including agroforestry and multicrop plantings. Since American hazel is a prominent native, there is no risk of invasiveness, and interrelationships to support Wisconsin wildlife are well established. In addition, hazel production readily integrates with small and medium-sized farming operations and family/cooperative farm unit organization.

4   Growers are emerging in the Midwest, including in Wisconsin. Southern Europe is still king in world hazelnut production, with Turkey leading at 75 percent. In the United States, commercial hazelnut production is still limited to the Pacific Northwest, where the climate allows for growing European cultivars. But a number of Midwestern farmers are trying their hand with two species, American (Corylus americana) and beaked (Corylus cornuta), that do well in cold climates and sandy soils. Surveys have identified about 130 hazelnut growers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, with nearly 135 acres in production.

5   Important genetics work is underway. Farmers now growing Midwestern hazelnuts are also growing important data as there are, as yet, no commercially proven cultivars of hazelnuts in this region. Breeders are working to develop genotypes focusing on both pure lines of native American hazel and on hybrid crosses between European and American. By selecting from the very diverse native populations and by crossing European with American, they hope to develop a hazelnut shrub with the nut quality and yield of the European and the cold-hardiness and disease tolerance of the American.

The Midwest Hazelnut Development Initiative (UMHDI, midwesthazelnuts.org) is a regional collaboration that includes representatives from UW–Madison and UW-Extension.

Jason Fischbach, an agriculture agent with UW-Extension and a program partner with UMHDI, contributed to this piece.