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Hazelnut blight fight

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Friday, December 01, 2006

HazelnutOrchard.jpgOregon’s prized hazelnut trees are under attack and the industry is scrambling for a solution before it’s too late.

By John Schmitz

Oregon’s celebrated hazelnut orchards, which produce 99% of the country’s crop, are in trouble, and it’s going to take a huge effort from Oregon State University to get them out of it.

Ask hazelnut growers from Hillsboro to the Eugene-Springfield area what’s most on their minds these days and they’ll tell you it’s eastern filbert blight (EFB), a fungal disease that attacks silently and invisibly in the spring and, if left untreated, kills limbs and even whole trees.

“We are at a critical juncture in the industry,” says Polly Owen, administrator of the Oregon Hazelnut Commission in Tigard. “We have enough heavily blighted trees that tough decisions have to be made by growers.” Those decisions include either pulling out trees and replanting with a resistant variety, or taking out trees and going with another crop.

According to the Oregon field office of USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service in Portland, the number of hazelnut trees growing in Oregon dropped more than 8% from 2001 to 2005. There are now 3.46 million trees, and this year’s crop is valued at $42 million.

What role the blight played in that decline is not exactly known, but it certainly has been a significant factor, Owen says. It has become such a menace that Oregon’s largest hazelnut processor, Hazelnut Growers of Oregon (HGO) in Cornelius, made the decision this year to do what no other company in the state has ever done: import nuts from another country — Chile.

“We’re going offshore for two reasons,” says HGO president Compton Chase-Lansdale. “We want to make sure we can take care of our customers on an ongoing basis, and faced with the blight, there’s a potential future for a declining Oregon crop.”

Also prompting HGO to go offshore, Chase-Lansdale says, is an increase in orders. HGO sells most of its hazelnuts to food processors, which use them in products such as baked goods, ice cream and candy.   

One grower near Canby, Rich Birkemeier, has torn out 300 acres of hazelnut trees to drive the disease off his property. He’s replacing them with new, highly resistant varieties from OSU, some still experimental.

“In our area we can’t have a sustainable farm in the presence of eastern filbert blight with [any variety] that’s not immune,” Birkemeier says. “I just got to the point that I didn’t want to spray and prune for blight anymore.”

Salem-area grower Bruce Chapin, whose trees have been stricken hard by the blight, has taken out 35 acres of Ennis trees and plans more extractions in the near future. “I’m looking at blocks that are most infected and talking them out first.” He plans to replant with new, highly immune varieties coming out of OSU.

WHAT MAKES THE BLIGHT EVEN MORE DISHEARTENING is that it prefers Ennis, a large nut variety for which Oregon has been famous. Daviana, a popular pollinizer found in many orchards, also succumbs easily.   

Chapin says it’s conceivable that Barcelona, Oregon’s signature hazelnut variety, could also fall from grace. “I think the industry is going to move on past Barcelona. In my area it appears we’re pretty much holding our own. But it’s my understanding that people who’ve fought eastern filbert blight longer than I have say that in time the disease wins.”   

“We’ve been fighting [EFB] ever since the very beginning,” says Hillsboro grower David Brown. “We’re going to take out the last five acres of Ennis this year.”

As for his take on the fate of Barcelona, “If you fought it hard from the very beginning, it may stay a very healthy, productive orchard,” Brown says. “But some years [the cost of treatments] takes the profit margin right out of it.”

Owen says that while most of the blighted trees that are being removed are being replaced with other varieties, it’s going to take several years before those trees get into full nut production.

EFB drove out hazelnut production from the northeastern United States decades ago, and was first discovered in this corner of the country near Vancouver, Wash., in the 1960s.

At the time, most Oregon growers didn’t give it much thought. After all, they reasoned, there’s no way the wind-borne spores that spread the disease could make it over the mighty Columbia River to infest Oregon trees.

Around two decades later they were proven dead wrong. The blight struck in eastern Multnomah County in the late 1980s and began to move westward and southward.

For several years the disease lingered in the northern reaches of the Willamette Valley. Then it began creeping south to Salem as prevailing winds wafted the lethal spores. Three years ago it surfaced near the Eugene-Springfield area and growers finally came to realize that no orchard in the state was safe.

While there are fungicides growers can use to fend off EFB, they’re costly and time-consuming to apply. What’s more, if not properly applied, even they can be breached. Growers can also remove and burn diseased limbs and whole trees, but this passive approach only ends up in a slow death for the orchards.   

GIVEN THE HIGH COST OF CHEMICAL TREATMENTS and the futility of removing diseased limbs and trees, the hoped-for solution to the blight lies just east of Corvallis, where the OSU hazelnut-breeding program is located.

Researchers there have over the years been busy making tens of thousands of hybrid crosses in their search to develop a handful of varieties that can not only stand up to EFB but also carry other favorable traits as well, such as high yields and good kernel quality.

But this all takes time, 15 to 20 years from hybridization to release, because the process is carried on the old-fashioned way, without resorting to controversial gene-splicing.

During breeding, pollen from selected male parents is united with tiny flowers on trees that also have desirable nut characteristics. The flowers are then hooded to shield them from unwanted pollen filling the air.

Nuts from these unions are grown out into seedlings, which are analyzed for susceptibility to EFB. Those that show resistance are moved along in the program.

While tens of thousands of experimental hazelnuts are harvested and evaluated, only a very few of the crosses pass muster, receive a name and are officially released by OSU.

The two latest OSU releases showing very good resistance to EFB are Santiam and Sacajawea. Some growers are shunning these new offerings for the time being, however, because they’re either anticipating superior varieties in the research pipeline or preferring to let other growers “be the guinea pigs,” as one grower put it.

Lewis, a highly resistant variety released several years ago, is popular with some growers rebuilding orchards and lost trees.   

So just how long is it going to take before hazelnut growers in Oregon will have varieties that can stand up to EFB and also produce high-yielding, high-quality nuts? It’s anybody’s guess, most industry experts will tell you. As one grower asks: Who’s to say the blight won’t adapt to the new varieties? Even with all the force of science brought to bear, there appears to be no such thing as a totally immune hazelnut. 

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