OSU develops filberts resistant to blight

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

hazelnuttrees A lethal hazelnut fungus started showing up in
Oregon trees 22 years ago.

WILLAMETTE VALLEY The Oregon hazelnut industry, which not that long ago appeared doomed at the hands of a deadly fungus, has turned the corner thanks to two disease-resistant varieties recently released by Oregon State University.

That hazelnut growers are once again optimistic about the crop is evident in this year’s planting figures, which show that for the first time in over 20 years more trees went in the ground than were taken out.

Hazelnuts, or filberts, which were declared the state nut in 1989, were first grown commercially in the Springfield area in 1905. Since then the crop has grown to more than 30,000 acres spread throughout the Willamette Valley.

In 2007, the crop earned some 650 growers around $75 million, and accounted for tens of millions of dollars more in the processing sector. Close to 100% of the hazelnuts produced in the U.S. are grown in Oregon.

Which is why the industry was concerned 22 years ago when the lethal hazelnut fungus called eastern filbert blight (EFB) began showing up in orchards. EFB, which attacks in the spring and cripples and kills trees if left unchecked, was somewhat of a novelty at first until it began picking up deadly momentum and by 2006 had invaded the majority of orchards in the Willamette Valley.

Polly Owen, administrator of the Oregon Hazelnut Commission, recalls the terror that pervaded the industry 15 years ago. “Many, many growers felt they would not have orchards still in production today,” she says.

But it never happened, thanks in large part to a two-pronged attack launched several years ago against EFB by OSU’s College of Agriculture.

While OSU horticulture professor Shawn Mehlenbacher has been breeding new hazelnut varieties that stand up to EFB, plant pathology professor Jay Pscheidt has developed a crop protection program that helps growers combat the disease in existing, susceptible orchards.

Pscheidt’s program, which is being practiced throughout the Willamette Valley, involves the use of anti-fungal chemicals and a pruning program that calls for the immediate removal of infected branches and even whole trees.

“The breeding program, as well as Jay’s work, has given us a light at the end of the tunnel,” Owen says. “We’ve reached this very critical juncture by having a variety released that will work in the in-shell market. We also have a very good kernel variety, so that’s major and we’ve kind of got the bases covered.”

What makes the Jefferson variety for the in-shell market such an all-important find, says Owen, is that it is the first EFB-resistant, in-shell variety deemed worthy to replace Barcelona, Oregon’s longstanding flagship variety that is susceptible to the fungus.

JOHN SCHMITZ

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