Cracking a new nut
His father, Bert, longed to work in the country’s famous tulip industry. But that proved tough, as the nation’s tulip farms have been long held by the same group of families.
The eldest of three sons, he traveled extensively in Scandinavia, picking up five languages along the way. Then he landed a six-month internship in the Dutch consulate in Seattle, thanks to a family friendship, and fell in love with America’s Pacific Northwest.
After returning home, he managed to line up a position managing a King County farm for a Dutch mortgage company. He ended up immigrating to America in the midst of the Great Depression.
Eventually, he was able to establish his own farm. That, in turn, enabled him to acquire acreage lying along Highway 18 in Oregon’s West Valley, now farmed by Jan and his wife, Linda.
The land was originally planted to walnuts and prunes. But Bert dedicated a riverside tract to hazelnuts in 1959, as an experiment.
Jan was pursuing a military career and Linda a teaching career when they began to assume command of the family farming operation on the side. And Jan began converting the farm to hazelnuts.
“It’s a crop extremely well-suited for this area,” Jan said. Walnuts once reigned surpreme locally, he said, but hazelnuts far outpace them these days.
According to Oregon State University’s Oregon Agriculture Information Network, 7,000 acres of hazelnuts were harvested in Oregon in 2011, compared to just 370 acres of walnuts, the network reported.
Through the years, the harvest has changed dramatically, though.
Jan remembers nuts being hand-picked and dropped into pans when he was a boy. When full, the pans would be dumped into large buckets — a tedious and time-consuming process.
When he began running the farm, much of the work was still done by hand, using tables and rakes. He said it took six people to fill two totes in a day.
The Wepsters began incrementally automating. These days, machine harvesting allows a crew of three to fill 40 totes in a day.
Jan and his father both worked with Oregon State University over the years to develop new varieties of nuts, one of the main goals being blight resistance.
About 10 years ago, Jan learned through the dean of agricultural sciences that the breeding program was facing cuts. The dean said it could spell the end for efforts to develop productive species capable of resisting Eastern Filbert Blight.
Assisted by others in the industry, he led a campaign that raised $1 million to fund an endowed professorship. Shawn Mehlenbacher was hired to fill the endowed chair, serving to keep the program afloat.
When OSU completed work on a new high-yielding, blight-resistant variety designed to produce nuts for the baking and chocolate industries, the contributions the Wepster family had made came foremost to mind. So the school decided to call it the Wepster.
When Mehlenbacher called to tell him the new variety was being named after his family, he was bowled over. He said the state is home to several equally deserving farm families.
But there was precedent.
Bert, who was honored as the Northwest’s outstanding nut grower in 1974 by the Oregon-Washington Nut Growers Society, had two walnuts named for him before the big move into hazelnuts. They were simply called W-1 and W-2.
Today, Jan and Linda are spending their retirement years living in a home built by Bert. And fittingly, it lies in the middle of a 110-acre hazelnut grove.
ABOUT THE NEW WEPSTER HAZELNUT
Oregon State University’s new Wepster hazelnut is being offered as an alternative to a cadre of other OSU-bred varieties — Lewis, Clark, Sacajawea and Yamhill.
Wepster, the product of a cross made back in 1997, will be licensed to nurseries who agree to pay a royalty of 50 cents per tree. Professor Shawn Mehlenbacher, lead developer at OSU, said a limited quantity should be available this spring, with more coming onto the market in the fall.
The new variant produces small, round kernels. That’s ideal for the chocolate industry, which prefers kernels measuring 11 to 13 millimeters in diameter.
Mehlenbacher said Wepster has several advantages over its peers, starting with its 15-foot height. That makes it easier to get sweeping equipment under the canopy to collect the nuts.
Wepster doesn’t require much pruning or training, either. And it is highly resistant to Eastern Filbert Blight, a fungal disease in which cankers girdle branches. significantly reducing yields.
As an added bonus, it is immune to bud mites, which cause flower buds to swell and die.
Mehlenbacher said Wepster’s yields are consistently high. He said it finished No. 1 in a trial with nine different cultivars planted in 2006. It produced 57 pounds of in-shell nuts per tree over a five-year period, compared to 43 pounds for Yamhill.
In another trial, Wepster yielded 43 pounds — about the same as OSU’s Jefferson, Yamhill and Santiam. And he said very few moldy kernels were observed.
Mehlenbacher said about 95 percent of Wepster’s nuts shed their husks at maturity. They fall about a week earlier than those of the popular Barcelona variety, aiding collection before the onset of the rainy season.
Trials showed other benefits, too, he said.
For example, during blanching, only about half of the Yamhill variety’s inner skin comes off. But Wepster’s moderately fibrous inside layer is easily removed with dry heat.
Hazelnuts cannot be pollinated by trees that are genetically identical. Recommended pollinizers for Wepster are two other OSU-developed varieties, York and Gamma.