Student helps Minnesota farmers

A doctoral student is working to connect local hazelnut growers with potential purchasers.

Student helps Minnesota farmers

Allison Kronberg

When most people think of hazelnut farms, they don’t picture the Midwest. But hazelnut growers in the state say they are rising in numbers and their hazelnuts are just as delicious as western varieties.

The problem is that they have few businesses to buy their products.

Amanda Sames, a University of Minnesota conservation biology doctoral student, is trying to help. Sames will interview potential hazelnut buyers and host focus groups throughout the state this semester to find a market for the nuts as part of a University extension partnership.

“I’m kind of serving as that link between the people who are working really hard on researching and growing and the communities that they’re hoping to be able to serve,” she said.

A Wisconsin farmer made a unique Midwest variety of hazelnuts in the 1940s by crossbreeding more familiar European, or “Filbert,” hazelnuts with American hazelnuts. Minnesota farmers brought the same breed of hazelnuts to the state in the 1980s.

But the nut has a few limitations that have kept commercial businesses from buying it since then, Sames said. The Midwest hazelnut’s edible kernel is very small — only one-third of the entire nut — unlike Filbert hazelnuts, whose kernels make up more than half of the nut.

Many people don’t want to buy in-shell Midwest hazelnuts because their hard shells make them difficult to crack at home, Sames said, and people don’t want to buy the kernels by themselves because they’re too small.

Even though there isn’t a market for the Midwest variety, growing the nut is attractive to farmers because it’s a perennial, she said. Perennials help farmers avoid plant turnover that causes soil erosion.

There could be a market in high-end restaurants for oil or paste made from the nut, as the kernels are very fatty and produce cooking oil with health benefits on par with olive oil, Sames said.

The oil is expensive, though, she said.

Sames plans to start interviews with local chefs in the next couple weeks to gauge their interest in the hazelnuts.

“We’re hoping that this will yield some clients that could become an anchor for our marketing strategy here in Minnesota,” said Jeff Jensen, member and former president of the Minnesota Hazelnut Foundation, which applied for help from the University to start the project.

While he was still leading the foundation, Jensen was inspired by an earlier University doctoral student’s efforts to aid the apple market by finding businesses interested in buying second-rate apples that local growers couldn’t sell. The student’s work connected Lunds and Byerly’s grocery stores with the farmers to create signature apple pies sold at the stores.

Both projects worked through University of Minnesota Extension’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, which connect students with businesses working on sustainable projects.

Sames’ project, though, is the first one funded by the Mary J. Page Community-University Partnerships Fund, created by the former University regent’s children after she died in 2013.

Sames may have been selected for the project because she has a history of agricultural social science work, she said, but also because she has her own small hazelnut farm about an hour south of Minneapolis.

“Being a farmer makes it easier to talk to other farmers,” she said. “You kind of know the language, and you’re able to make a good connection.”

On Saturday, Sames did her first interview with Norm Erickson, a hazelnut farmer in Lake City, Minn., who has been growing the nut since 2003.

Erickson, now retired, used his background working for IBM to work toward developing the best technology to de-shell and produce Midwest hazelnuts.

He would have tried to get a patent for the machine he’s developed, he said, but he hasn’t made enough profit from the nuts to do so.

“[Midwest hazelnut farming] is like owning a boat,” Erickson said. “You just put money into it and don’t get anything out.”

But Erickson thinks the industry will grow, he said, especially with its sustainable benefits.

In the meantime, Erickson said, he’ll keep looking for the best way to grow and produce hazelnuts in the young Midwest industry.

“In the long term, I think it could become an important crop,” he said. “In the short term, it’s pioneer work.”