The Hybrid Hazelnut Consortium, a leading hazelnut research group, was awarded a three-year Specialty Crop Block Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support research to expand the growing region of hazelnuts as a commercial source of food, biofuel and feedstock through the breeding of disease-resistant, cold tolerant hybrids. The Consortium is made of up scientists from Oregon State University, Rutgers University, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the Arbor Day Foundation.
The $1.39 million grant was awarded through the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program. This program awards grants to organizations that research plant breeding, genetics and genomics to improve specialty crop characteristics; identify and address threats from pests and diseases; improve production efficiency, productivity and profitability over the long term; new innovations and technology; and methods to prevent, detect, monitor, control and respond to food safety hazards in the production and procession of specialty crops.
"The grant from this program will help fund the initial phase of research for Hybrid Hazelnut Consortium," said Doug Farrar, vice president of Arbor Day Farm, which is owned and operated by the nonprofit Arbor Day Foundation. "The research to discover the best hazelnut hybrids will take our scientists years to complete. Through the work of our scientists and with the help of members of the Arbor Day Foundation who are growing hazelnuts, we are committed to finding the best solution because of the significant and measureable environmental benefits hazelnuts will have for future generations."
Through the grant, the Consortium will:
- Develop disease-resistant, cold tolerant hybrid hazelnut plants to expand the commercial growing region of hazelnuts
- Detail the economic impact of hazelnuts as sustainable commercial crop in new regions
- Evaluate the use and economic impact of hazelnuts as a crop for sustainable biofuel and feedstock applications
- Work directly with stakeholders throughout the United States to disseminate results of research and breeding efforts and the benefits of growing hazelnuts as a new cash crop
"The proposed research builds on prior investments and the strengths of the four institutions," said Shawn Mehlenbacher, a professor in the department of horticulture at Oregon State University. "Hazelnut research at Oregon State University was begun in the 1920s, and a breeding program was initiated in 1969. In recent decades, the world's best hazelnut collection has been assembled, and several new disease-resistant cultivars and promising selections have been developed. These genetic materials will now be used to develop new hybrid hazelnuts adapted to other areas in North America. Climatic adaptation and resistance to the eastern filbert blight fungus are major challenges addressed by the research project. Genetic variation in hazelnut and the fungal pathogen will be studied, with the goal of creating new cultivars with durable disease resistance."
In May 2009, the Consortium planted several thousand second generation hazelnut hybrids in Nebraska and New Jersey. The plants were cross-bred using superior plants originating from around the world and those developed by Consortium members. The purpose of the second generation plantings is to determine the impact different climates have on hazelnut growth and nut production, as well as to establish which of the potential hybrids will be selected as new cultivars that produce both high yields and high oil content hazelnuts. The grant will ensure that subsequent hybrid generations are planted each year to further the development of promising hybrid hazelnuts throughout much of the United States.
"The Specialty Crop Block Grant will allow us to enhance hybrid hazelnut breeding efforts and also provide us the means to study and better understand the genetic diversity and pathogenic variability of the eastern filbert blight pathogen, Anisogramma anomala," said Tom Molnar, assistant professor in the department of plant biology and pathology at Rutgers University. "This fungal pathogen is the major reason hazelnuts have not been produced commercially in the eastern U.S. in the past. It is also now a serious problem in the Pacific Northwest, where it was introduced in the late 1960s. It since has decimated hazelnut orchards and greatly increased the expense of hazelnut production in this region. This grant will allow the Consortium to more effectively develop hazelnuts highly resistant to this pathogen across a wide area, which will enhance production in current growing regions in Oregon while also providing the foundation to develop widely adapted cultivars for sustainable production across the Midwest and eastern U.S."
To date, 99 percent of the U.S. hazelnut crop is produced in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Hazelnut production in the U.S. is already a multi-million dollar industry but only represents between 3-5 percent of the world's production of the crop.
Researchers, led by Mehlenbacher, developed EFB resistant European cultivars that are resistant to the active strains of EFB in Oregon. This breakthrough is helping the Consortium to develop highly resistant plants for the Midwest and Eastern United States and for Southern Canada.
"Hazelnuts show great promise to be a major crop - a perennial woody plant that produces steady nut crops with a range of uses, and grown in low-input, sustainable, environmentally friendly systems," said Scott Josiah, state forester and director of the Nebraska Forest Service.
The potential benefits of growing hazelnuts on a large scale are great, both agriculturally and environmentally. Hazelnuts require less fossil energy to produce large amounts of nuts because it's a perennial rather than an annual crop. They also require less water, can be grown on marginal agriculture lands for food and biofuel, sequester carbon dioxide, are drought and flood tolerant and produce an oil yield nearly two times that of soybeans per acre.
For the next several years, the Consortium will plant second generation hazelnuts in research fields. The Consortium aims to develop improved hybrid hazelnut selections within the next 10 to 15 years, which will then be distributed through the Arbor Day Foundation.
* For more information about the Hybrid Hazelnut Consortium visit www.arborday.org/consortium.