Are hazelnuts the new soybean?
BUTTERFIELD, Minn. -- In 2004, Norm Penner started planting hazelnut bushes on his farm in Butterfield. While the project has had challenges, Penner thinks there's still hope for hazelnuts with the right attention. Penner farms about 300 acres of corn, soybeans and hay. He has about 500 hazel bushes interspersed with the hay claiming two acres.
He remembers reading about hazels several years ago and being interested in them right away. After attending a meeting in Rochester, he signed up with the former Blue Earth River Basin Initiative and became a hazelnut farmer.
While it was a new endeavor, Penner wasn't worried about it. He remembers when farmers were leery about soybeans. His family farmed the area since they "fell off the train"' in the late 1880s and his father tried soybeans around 1950.
"After five years he was (disappointed) and pretty much decided he wasn't going to do them anymore," Penner said. Then universities began research on soybeans. Before long what was a difficult-to-harvest plant growing on vines like peas became an upright plant easily harvested with combines.
As it stands right now, Penner has not profited from his hazels as they are not yet producing nuts. "Alone, hazelnuts are not yet sustainable," he said. However he spread bushes over 10 acres, growing hay in between the rows. "They aren't sustainable as we speak," he shared. "You've got to have something in between them."
It could be five years before hazelnuts make money for Penner, but he said you need look no farther than a field of soybeans to see how that could change fast. For anything to be a viable third crop, government support and research is needed, according to Penner.
"If universities and the government get behind hazelnuts - there's no support now - it could happen soon," he said. Because growing hazels is more labor intensive, it will not catch on with farmers, Penner claimed. But if there was a way to plant them quicker and harvest them more efficiently, that may change things.
Penner thinks that the same support-based approach to starting a young family, maybe with one adult working off the farm, on a vegetable or fruit farm could provide economic and community development as well as lower the cost of better nutrition at the market.
"They are pushing eating more fruit and vegetables, but what's the most expensive thing at the store?" Penner asked. "Fruits and vegetables. If the government supported farmers, young couples, to grow fruit or vegetables, they would be here all year and support schools and shop in town. Then those foods would cost less and communities would be sustained as well."
Hazels are good plants for conservation especially in sandy or washed-out types of soils, Penner noted. Older plants with good root structure are great for soil stabilization. Starting out is tough according to Penner and involves much labor. He advises newcomers to be patient and prepare for the long haul.
If Penner's ideas ever take root with major ag research centers, like the University of Minnesota, the landscape in rural America might look a little bit different in the future.
Editor's note: This information was provided by Rural Advantage, a nonprofit corporation based in Fairmont, Minnesota. Its mission is to promote the connections between agriculture, the environment and rural communities in order to improve ecological health, economic viability and rural vitality. For more information, call (507) 238-5449 or visit the website at www.ruraladvantage.org.