Oregon produces 99 percent of the U.S. crop of hazelnuts. We have the perfect Goldilocks climate: not too hot, not too cold, very humid in the winter.
The world’s demand for hazelnuts far exceeds supply. Oregon growers have been getting a good price the last few years, in part because of lower production in Turkey, where 70 percent of the world’s hazelnuts are grown. Demand for hazelnuts, especially for Nutella, has been increasing, and that presents a wonderful opportunity for Oregon.
Opportunity and challenges go hand in hand. OSU’s hazelnut breeding program is the largest in the world, larger than all other hazelnut breeding programs put together. Without this breeding program, Oregon growers wouldn’t have new and better varieties to take advantage of new opportunities.
One challenge we face that most other breeders don’t is that we work with a large plant. Trees take up space, and research plots take up lots of acres. And it’s not fast—it takes 17 years from making the cross to releasing a new hazelnut variety.
Another challenge is eastern filbert blight. We worry that the pathogen will mutate and that the resistance we have developed won’t last. That’s why we are working with many new sources of resistance in our breeding program. When I started here in 1986, we had one source of blight resistance to use in breeding. Now we’re investigating 100 sources. Germplasm from Turkey, Spain, Serbia, Crimea, Russia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan provides an incredibly diverse gene pool for us to use.
And we have laboratory research on molecular genetics to map the different resistance genes and develop markers to use to make breeding more efficient. It’s a wonderful opportunity.