The University of Minnesota received nearly $1 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund research for hazelnut growth in the state.
The University was one of 19 schools to receive a grant for research in what it calls “specialized crops,” or crops that have less attention in the commercial farming industry, according to the USDA. The total award amount was $903,909.
Hazelnuts have a lot of potential as a Minnesota crop because of its ability to be refined as a biodiesel fuel — much like soybean oil, said Jeff Jensen of the Minnesota Hazelnut Foundation. Hazelnuts could provide more oil per acre than soybeans as well, but Jensen stressed that this has not been proven on a large scale.
Hazelnut oil can also be used in cooking, and is a healthy alternative to vegetable or soybean oil, said Dean Current, program director for the Center of Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management.
“Local chefs said they would love to have Minnesota hazelnuts,” Current said.
CINRAM is a partnership between the University’s School of Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Sciences and the School of Natural Resources.
“Basically anything you can do with soybeans, you can do with hazelnuts,” Jensen said. “The same types of opportunities are there for hazelnuts.”
Research crops from other universities who also received a grant ranged from raspberries to mushrooms to basil.
The Specialized Crop Research Initiative, an annual grant program with the USDA, was created by the 2008 Farm Bill, a $288 billion agricultural policy bill passed by the U.S. Congress, according to the USDA.
University researchers are currently breeding Minnesota-native plants with their European counterparts. They hope to breed the plants for larger nut yields, improved flavor, cold-hardiness and resistance to the Eastern Filbert blight, a disease that affects many hazelnut plants, Current said.
The project first started in 2003, he said.
Though the hazelnut will probably never become a staple crop in the Minnesota landscape, it has the potential to be a big player in diversifying Minnesota’s agriculture, Jensen said. Farmers can turn to the plant for environmentally sensitive land, to protect water from chemicals, and to provide a habitat for wildlife.
Hazelnut plants are bush-like, and can grow to over 15 feet and about 10 years old. Unlike soybeans or corn, they’re perennial plants that will yield every year, according to the Minnesota Hazelnut Foundation.
Current said with enough time, Minnesota could grow a hazelnut industry large enough to send semi-trucks full of hazelnuts to cereal manufacturers like General Mills. But years of research are still needed to get to that point, and an easier method of harvesting the nuts needs to be found.
“With any product like this, it takes a while and needs the research money so we can predict what we can get from these plants,” Current said.