Hazelnuts, a.k.a. filberts: they’re utterly ubiquitous! I’ll say more about that in a moment.
First, let’s get the nomenclature clear. By nearly universal agreement, Oregon’s state nut can be correctly labeled as either a filbert or a hazelnut. It can also be called a cobnut—except that’s a language application more favored by the Brits.
Tradition leans toward referring to the trees bearing the bountiful nuts as filbert trees. Nuts found on those trees are most often labeled hazelnuts. (It seems the term filbert has lately become a bit stodgy.) But technically, European filbert trees (which wholly dominate the Oregon nut-growing industry) produce nuts of the genus Corylus, any variety of which can be properly referred to as either a hazelnut or filbert.
Thanks to nearly 150 years of sedulous planting, research, and grower cooperation, the Willamette Valley produces 99 percent of the U.S. hazelnut crop. In just the last seven years, hazelnut acreage in Oregon has grown by 50 percent. Some of the growth is a result of the recent foodie predilection for hazelnut butters like Nutella, but a host of other hazelnut products are also feeding modern tastes.
To a huge degree, the original explosion of hazelnut love harkens back to a University of Oregon graduate and lawyer-turned-farmer who made a massive impact on Oregon’s wholesale agricultural future. The farmer planted 200 filbert seedlings of the Barcelona variety on his land near downtown Springfield in 1905. His name was George Dorris, and his property is Dorris Ranch.
In the 50 years following his original plantings, Dorris added another 9,000 filbert trees to his precisely ordered orchards set on 300 acres alongside the Willamette River. He also established a filbert nursery that largely seeded Oregon’s entire commercial hazelnut industry, leading to the growth and large-volume production we see today.
Drawing up a catalogue of factoids on the unique character of filbert culture would be fantastic fun. It would properly include notes on Northwest pioneer history, Oregon climatology, Eastern Filbert Blight, hazelnut cultivation in Turkey, and biogenetic research at Oregon State University.
But one of the more interesting items would be that filbert trees bloom in winter. Filberts are the only orchard crop that produces flowers—male and female—when sunlight is most waning. The pollen produced by the long yellow filbert catkins is not carried by insects, but by the winds of winter. The pollen fertilizes tiny red winter buds on nearby filbert trees, after which those trees essentially nap until spring.
The grounds and legacy orchards of Dorris Ranch are open year-round as a state historical site, public park, and “living farm,” well worth a walk at any time of the year. In fact, the site is the oldest active hazelnut farm in the nation.
Dorris-grown hazelnuts first appear in early June, as is typical for filberts. In their infant stage, the tiny green nuggets are sheltered inside a protective husk. As the weather warms, the nuts emerge in groups of two or three wrapped in sticky, fuzzy leaf clusters. By early summer, they have swollen to the size of acorns. By August, they have taken on their familiar hazel color as a precursor to an annual fall harvest.
Don Hansen has been the orchardist at Dorris Ranch for 12 years. He earns shares amounting to 60 percent of the total harvest revenue and manages a crew of five workers who often work seven days a week during harvest season. Planting and pruning occupy his interests other times of the year. But harvest season is crunch time, typically lasting from late September into early November.
“I can usually pick 300 acres in 12 days, including moving time,” says Hansen. His team harvests each orchard at least twice, sometimes coming back for a third pass depending on the weather and the volume of nuts left on the trees following the second harvest.
“I’ll go out and look at an orchard first,” he says. “I can pretty much tell whether it’s worth our time based on what the last orchard did and how far the nuts are spaced apart. If there are 200 pounds an acre left out there, we’ll go out pick it again. If it’s less than that, well. . . then it’s not worth doing.”
Over the past decade, Dorris harvest totals have ranged from 54,000 pounds to a high of 127,000 pounds. Prices for the nuts fluctuate from year to year.
Ready, set, go
When hazelnut leaf clusters go brown and crinkly, it’s a sign that they are harvest-ready. Some growers speed the harvest by hand-picking clusters early. Others free nuts from branches using sophisticated machinery that grips and shakes the tree trunks. Still others imitate mother nature by bringing huge fans into the orchards.
At Dorris Ranch, weather plays a major role in the harvest. Autumn Willamette Valley winds predictably blow hazelnuts to the ground; the winds are almost always married to the waning days of September. Rainfall is less predictable: it can muck up nut clusters, gum up machinery, extend the duration of the harvest, and even affect overall tonnage.
“There are many factors that play into your yields,” says Willamalane Parks Program Manager Damon Crume. “That is just part of being a farmer.”
The trees in the Dorris orchards are planted in parallel rows roughly 100 yards long. About 20 feet of open space separates each tree row. Before the nuts drop, harvest workers level the ground around the orchards, removing debris as they go. After the hazelnuts drop, crew members drive sweeper machines down the aisles between trees to blow the fallen nuts into “wind rows” that extend the length of each aisle. It usually takes two or three sweeper passes to build full wind rows.
Tractor-like harvesters follow the sweepers, straddling the wind rows and raking, sucking, and lifting the nuts (and other material) off the ground. The harvester machinery blows the nuts into a trailer coupled to the back of the tractor, leaving a storm of twigs and leaves and dust to settle back to the ground.
In the final stages of the Dorris harvest, the nuts are transferred from the trailer into huge wooden boxes that get loaded onto trucks bound for the George Packing Company in Newberg. George offloads, washes, dries, and sorts the nuts, then ships them to secondary manufacturers and retailers. Locally grown nuts eventually get sold raw, baked, smoked, candied, chopped, mashed, then eaten across Oregon, all other states, and many areas of Europe and Asia.
Hazelnuts sit high on food charts detailing health and nutritional benefits. The nuts contain high doses of vitamins, minerals, and the healthy fats that combat diabetes. Their antioxidant qualities exceed those found in vitamins A and E and others that fight cancer and heart disease. Hazelnuts are powerhouse brain boosters containing elements believed to improve cognitive function and fight against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. They can also contribute to healthy skin and hair growth, aid in healthy digestion, and combat obesity by countering hunger cravings.
Hazelnuts have almost unlimited applications in the culinary realm, spanning the full taste spectrum: sweet, sour, savory, spicy, bitter, and salty. They are excellent as stand-alone snacks, whether roasted, baked, smoked, salted, or candied. They can be fashioned into intoxicating beverages or shaped into pasta. They are an ideal component in baked goods such as breads, pastries, cakes, and cookies. They offer amazing options when processed into nut butter. And they work well as flavor and textural accents when mated to a variety of entrées.
Hazelnuts, filberts, cobnuts—take your pick. No matter what you choose to call them, they hold an esteemed place in our local history and culture.