Yamhill County leads state in hazelnut acreage
Joan Firestone, co-owner of Firestone Farms with her husband, Clark, estimates their Dayton operation will process somewhere around 2 million pounds of hazelnuts this season.
They have 100 acres of producing trees themselves, and contract with growers throughout the valley to process their nuts. They have steadily increased the scale of operations over their years of ownership.
Yamhill County’s 7,401 acres of commercial hazelnut orchards leads the state. In fact, the county accounts for almost one-quarter of statewide cultivation, according to a survey released last month by the National Agriculture Statistics Service’s Oregon Field Office.
The service conducts comprehensive surveys every four years, and they document steady growth in local hazelnut acreage. The survey showed 6,350 Yamhill County acres in 2004 and 6,680 in 2008.
However, the number of growers has dropped from 139 in 2004 to 102 this year. That suggests smaller operators are dropping out and largest ones are expanding their holdings.
Marion County ranks first in number of growers at 117 and second in area under cultivation at 6,620 acres.
The total value for the Oregon crop ran almost $90 million last year, and Oregon accounts for 99 percent of total American production.
The Firestones bought their property, which included a retail outlet along Highway 99W just north of its intersection with Highway 18, in 1998. They developed the main part of the packing operation in 2006, and it became fully operational the following the year.
Last year, they added a large storage warehouse. Altogether, they have about 15,000 square feet dedicated to nut packing.
The Firestones are capable of processing up to 12 million pounds — 6,000 tons.
They not only are actively recruiting growers, but also adding acreage of their own. In fact, they just picked up 120 acres they plan to plant in nuts.
Their son, Michael, is running the packing plant these days. His wife, Estelle, is helping in the retail outlet, and their daughter, Heidi, handles the company books from her home in California.
The family’s farming roots extend back to 1894, making Michael fifth-generation. It got into the hazelnut business in the 1940s in Vancouver, Wash.
This year’s production forecast for the state was 40,000 tons, but Joan Firestone thinks it may come in a little shy of that. She notes most of the nuts have been picked by now.
Oregon’s best recent year was 2009, which produced 47,000 tons. Last year, the crop ran 38,500 tons.
Firestone said the biggest drawback is the length of time it takes to bring new trees to maturity. But she said new high-density planting techniques are producing fairly significant yields within four to five years.
The green clusters containing the pollen for next year’s crop actually start developing when the current year’s crop is maturing, she said. So they have a great nutritional need at that point.
The tiny pink flowers and catkins developing during this year are pollinated over the winter months.
For the hazelnut farmer, crisp, dry and windy days in January and February are perfect, as virtually all the pollen is spread by wind. Orchards are planted with pollinizing in mind, so if winds prove insufficient one season, large mechanical blowers can be brought in.
The nuts themselves, encased in husks, don’t become readily visible until May or June.
The harvest starts after the nuts fall to the ground, as early as mid-September.
Typically, the nuts drop free from the husk. For those that don’t, processing is more complicated.
Harvesting is accomplished with sweepers that function like a combine. Nuts don’t all fall at once, so the grower has to bide his time to get the crop in, and may make a second sweep if warranted.
The sweeper gathers nuts from the ground. A blower removes leaves and debris and a conveyor carriers the nuts to a tote bin or service wagon.
“Harvesting itself can be a dirty, dirty job,” Firestone said.
That proved especially so this year, as many growers harvested before a long dry spell finally broke. It was so dry the workers were covered with dust.
Firestone said some growers deliver their nuts to the processing facility in bulk, while others bring them in totes or bins.
“There are a lot of different options,” she said. “We try and accommodate growers’ needs.”
Once the nuts arrive, they are washed in very hot water, then dried and graded. Some varieties are bleached to lighten the shells, while others are light enough naturally.
Michael Firestone conducts crack-testing, looking for issues that might not be visible from the outside.
The nuts are also sorted for defects. They are packed in either 50-pound or 25-kilo bags, the latter weighing about 55 pounds.
Nuts sold domestically are typically trucked by the semi load.
But Joan Firestone said the vast majority of the product is hauled to Portland by truck, to Seattle by rail and then to Asia by ship. She said 1,000-kilo lots are loaded into containers for shipment to Hong Kong and China.
During the packing season, the Firestones have to add staff. The growing and harvesting are not particularly labor-intensive, but the packing is.
Hazelnuts can be grown in belts extending around the world along the same latitude lines. They run through Spain, France and Turkey in the Northern Hemisphere and Chile in the Southern Hemisphere.
Firestone said Oregon consistently produces large, premium-quality nuts. She said Turkey is the world’s leading producer by volume, but ships primarily shelled kernels, because it can’t match the quality and size of the Oregon product.
She said only about 10 percent of Firestone Farms production fails to make the shell grade. She said those nuts go to Willamette Shelling in Newberg for processing into kernels, which command less in the market.
The Firestones hold back a small portion of their crop for sale through their retail outlet. They offer nuts in a variety of forms — whole, roasted, flavored, chocolate-covered and processed into nut butter.
Firestone is currently serving as second vice president with the Nut Growers Society, which puts her on track to become its first woman president when it celebrates its centennial in 2014.
There are several varieties of hazelnuts that are grown commercially. Firestone said the two “old school variety” are the Barcelona and Ennis.
Barcelona accounted for 56 percent of the new acreage planted in Oregon this year. Ennis ran second at 10 percent, followed by Lewis at 8.4.
Firestone said Oregon State University has been working on new varieties resistant to Eastern filbert blight, which poses a major threat to the industry.
She said varieties have different qualities. She said Ennis trees produce a large, sweet and beautiful nut, but are highly susceptible to blight. She said Barcelona trees are hardier and produce a nut that’s perfect for roasting.
“In recent years, grower prices have been really strong,” she said. But she said kernel prices are down this year worldwide.