Peter McDonald's hazelnut orchard is on the wrong continent. He would have done well to plant its lush canopy in Switzerland, where each...
WILSONVILLE, Ore. — Peter McDonald’s hazelnut orchard is on the wrong continent.
He would have done well to plant its lush canopy in Switzerland, where each year more than 4.4 pounds of hazelnuts per person are consumed. That’s 70 times more than the average American, who snacks on less than 1 ounce of the round, aromatic nut per year.
Germany would have been a strategic move, too. There, consumers down more than 2 pounds each of hazelnuts, ground into meal and used as flour, giving flavor to cakes and breads.
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In Italy, children butter their toast with Nutella, a chocolate-hazelnut spread. In France, the nut is often used as the core of chocolate truffles.
“Without even trying, the Europeans eat as many hazelnuts in a few weeks as we do here in a year,” lamented McDonald, whose orchard is in the heart of America’s hazelnut belt.
Oregon’s hazelnuts are considered among the best in the world. But having exhausted their export possibilities, growers are turning their attention to their largest untapped market — their back yard.
Selling Americans on hazelnuts is bound to be an uphill battle, say industry watchers.
“Americans have a very long history with peanuts,” said J. Frank McGill, the University of Georgia’s distinguished professor of agronomy.
Compared with almost all other nuts, especially the peanut, the hazelnut has done dismally in the United States.
In 1965, Americans consumed slightly less than 1 ounce of hazelnuts per person, a tiny percentage of the 5.4 pounds of peanuts eaten per capita in the form of raw nuts, candy bars, snacks and peanut butter.
By 2003 — the most recent year for which figures are available — peanut consumption had boomed to more than 6 pounds per person, while hazelnut consumption hadn’t budged.
“We drink European wine, we drive European cars, we go there on vacation; why can’t we eat their nuts?” said McDonald.
Those in the business of marketing the nut point out that Americans do have a soft spot for hazelnut-flavored coffee.
“The No. 2 coffee flavoring in America is hazelnut, right behind vanilla,” said Vicki Nesper, marketing director of the Jersey City, N.J.-based Hazelnut Council.
The irony is that the hazelnut additive in coffees is not made from real hazelnuts.
“It’s artificial,” said Nesper. “But we want to share the knowledge with Americans that if they like it in their coffee, then they might like real hazelnuts in other products, as well.”
Changing American tastes is only half the battle, however.
On a recent spring afternoon, McDonald stepped into his flowering orchard near the banks of the Willamette River and walked toward his beloved trees, their branches flooded with green leaves. But a closer look revealed branches that have been cut off.
“It’s like finding out you have AIDS. Or cancer,” said McDonald, recalling the afternoon of Aug. 17, 1989, when he discovered that the Eastern filbert blight had invaded his trees. “I’m lucky I didn’t lose the whole orchard,” he said.
For generations, Oregon producers called hazelnuts “filberts,” but they agreed to change the name to boost marketing outside Oregon.
In the past decade, Oregon has lost more than 1,600 acres to the blight, a period during which California’s almond acreage grew by nearly 132,000 acres.
The blight exacerbated an already well-known supply-and-demand problem. Unlike other crops, hazelnuts bear fruit in a two-year cycle; a high yield year is followed by a low yield.
Cereal, chocolate and bread manufacturers that might otherwise have taken an interest in Oregon’s hazelnut have been scared off, worried that if they created a hazelnut product, the demand would outstrip the crop.
Things are changing for the better. One reason industry watchers are hopeful is because of a marketing agreement with Turkey, the world’s No. 1 hazelnut producer. In an effort to enter the U.S. market, Turkish growers joined hands with U.S. rivals.
That’s crucial for U.S. growers, because Turkey can pick up the slack in years when Oregon’s crop is at its low point, resolving the supply-and-demand problem.
While the blight is never far from farmers’ minds — McDonald said he spent $5,000 this season pruning his trees for disease — the blight-resistant strains, including some from Turkey, are taking root.
Most encouraging of all is the boom in sales of European hazelnut products in America.
In 2002, U.S. sales of Swiss chocolate maker Lindt grew 50 percent over the previous year, according to Packaged Facts, a New York market-research firm. Sales of the chocolate — much of which is sprinkled with hazelnuts — grew another 26 percent to $35.9 million in 2003, the last year for which data are available.
“The American palate is changing,” said Don Stohrer, a manager for Ferrero USA, the U.S. arm of the Italian candy maker that created Nutella.
While he declined to name specific figures, Nutella is available at almost all major U.S. grocery chains, not to mention Wal-Mart.
Recently, it seems U.S. companies are taking notice.
In November, Kraft Foods launched a snack mix featuring hazelnuts under its Planters label. Salad-dressing maker Wish-Bone recently introduced its “Raspberry Hazelnut Vinaigrette.”
Back in Oregon — where 99 percent of the U.S. hazelnut crop is grown, or roughly 4 percent of the world crop — farmers are not waiting for the big brands to come knocking.
Columbia Empire Farms in Sherwood turns its 300-acre hazelnut crop into 23 different hazelnut products — from hazelnut caramels to snack mixes.
“If you’re selling a crop on the world market, then you’re at the whim of the world market,” said the company’s national sales manager Janet Pendergrass. “If you’re adding value to a product and selling it here, then you’re much more in control.”