Photos by Jake Gravbrot
Updated May 14, 2020
Tree nut consumption has seen significant growth in the U.S. over the last five decades, with overall consumption nearly tripling since 1970. While hazelnut consumption has grown as well, according to USDA figures, its percentage of the pot held steady at 0.04%. Additionally, 70% of the world’s hazelnuts are grown in Turkey, with less than 5.0% grown in the U.S. — 99% of which are grown in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which lies between the mountains and the ocean in the heart of the 45th parallel. Hazelnut trees thrive across the 45th parallel — halfway between the North Pole and the equator — because of the climate. But, hazelnuts (or filberts) are little known or consumed in the U.S. In fact, the vast majority of Oregon’s production is either exported or used as an ingredient in other food products. The Hazelnut Growers of Oregon (HGO), a cooperative of more than 180 growers, is working to change all that.
“There is so much that North America doesn’t know about us,” said HGO Quality Assurance Manager Mark Clute. “We need to introduce them to this nut.”
The goal, said Plant Manager Jason Costa, is to make it a more common household nut. “How do we make it the next almond? We’re basically creating a niche.” And because all HGO’s profits go to its growers, he said, its success provides them with more money, which can then be put into their businesses. “It becomes a cycle.”
A few of the “introductory” things consumers should know is that hazelnuts are a good source of protein, omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids, Vitamin E, and antioxidants. Research also has shown that the nuts can lower cholesterol levels. As U.S. consumers become more aware of such benefits, and travelers experience the more common uses of this nut in Europe and Asia, the industry is seeing an increase in demand.
BUILDING AN INDUSTRY. HGO addressed this growth potential through its 2016 merger with Wilco and a new facility in Donald, Ore. The merger gave Wilco a growing agriculture business to diversify its grower services and provided HGO with a larger infrastructure and ability to build a new plant with extensive food safety and quality features designed into the facility.
HGO could have done it the old “pack and ship” way with no pasteurization and basic quality and safety checks, then sold it all in bulk to China at a low price (as do up to 70% of Oregon’s producers). “That would be the easy thing to do, but it’s not the right thing to do for the growers,” Clute said. “We’re developing a domestic market for value-added products. We want to create a stability that’s never been there.” HGO does sell some of its product overseas in bulk, but 60% is sold in the U.S., as compared with less than 25% of most others, and it intends to continue to increase this percentage.
HGO had had a plant in Cornelius, Ore., but it was essentially a packing shed, Costa said, and the company had some high-reaching goals: to be SQF level 3 and be the largest value-added hazelnut processor in America. “If we were going to target SQF3, this wasn’t sufficient; we’d need to build a new facility,” he said. “And the old way of processing wasn’t going to be the new way.”
Thus, the new way of doing business came in the form of a 120,000-square-foot facility with a 30,000-square-foot warehouse — with separate raw and ready-to-eat sections. The plant employs 70 to 80 workers during harvest and about 40 year-round.
One of the key aspects of the new facility is its onsite steam pasteurization system, which provides a kill step in hazelnut processing without the use of chemicals. The 200°F dry, saturated steam provides a natural process for a five-log kill of Salmonella and other pathogens. All hazelnuts intended to be sold domestically without further processing are required to be pasteurized, but most conventional processors use propylene oxide (PPO), a toxic gas approved by the FDA to kill bacteria.
The HGO team also attained its goal to be SQF Level 3 certified — in only nine months. As a complete GFSI system, which adds quality on top of the food safety requirements, he said, it took thousands and thousands of hours in development, training, tool and signage set-up, and documentation. The plant now has three SQF practitioners on staff, and all managers are HACCP and PCQI trained. The SQF3 certification also makes HGO one of only 12% of U.S. manufacturers certified to that level.
HGO’s focus on growth can only come as a relief to the growers whose orchards were in peril not long ago (and in some areas still are) from the arrival of eastern filbert blight (EFB). The blight is native to eastern North America, but faced no resistance in the Barcelona and Ennis hazelnut varieties common to Oregon. As explained by Oregon State University, “The blight takes its time killing a tree. It takes seven to 10 discouraging years for the cankers to spread and the leaves to start turning brown, a sure sign of infection. Through management practices like pruning and appropriate spraying, growers can mitigate the disease but not stop it.” It was two OSU professors who literally saved the region — and, thereby, the U.S. hazelnut industry — from the disease which was pockmarking its way through Oregon orchards. After walking tree to tree through orchards and taking meticulous notes, Shawn Mehlenbacher, a professor in OSU’s Hazelnut Breeding program, began his work to identify sources of EFB resistance and develop new varieties.
According to OSU, it takes 17 years from the time two parents are crossed to the release of a new variety. The most promising strain has been Jefferson, developed in 2009 as an offspring of Gasaway developed by OSU Professor Emeritus Maxine Thompson. Many Oregon growers are gradually replacing their EFB-susceptible Barcelona and Ennis varieties with Jefferson, but there is a four- to five-year period between a tree’s planting and the first harvest.
The new facility and EFB-resistant hazel tree varieties also enable HGO to meet its value-added goals and begin to penetrate retail outlets as the industry had not been able to do. “In the past, the industry wasn’t able to guarantee product to U.S. retailers, so it did not get contracts,” Costa said. But now HGO has contracts with Safeway and Albertsons and is talking with other retailers.
“As we built the plant, we were really building an industry that wasn’t there,” Clute said. “There’s an excitement to what we’re doing, but definitely an underlying sense of responsibility to the growers.”
IN THE ORCHARD. In addition to touring HGO’s new facility, QA visited with one of its growers: the fifth-generation orchards of agronomists Tim, Tom, and Kevin Aman in Mount Angel, Ore. The original 10-acre family orchard was planted in 1968 and has expanded since then to 75 acres — all of which is managed by the family. “When you plant an orchard, it’s a heritage,” Tim said.
Hazelnut trees are planted in rows. Although its natural inclination is to form as a bush, commercial growers prune the plants as they grow, removing the sucker branches with chemical or strangling methods. The trees grow 20 to 25 feet high with canopies that form an “umbrella,” keeping the orchard floor clean and vegetation free. It is a “tree that never sleeps,” Tim said, explaining that the trees bloom in the winter, and the pollen released from their catkins floats on the wind to the new growth of neighboring trees, where the hazelnuts begin to form. The nuts ripen in about eight months, but are left to fall naturally out of the husk to the ground. A hazelnut tree can continue producing nuts into its 80s.
Until the 1970s, hazelnuts were harvested by hand, Tim said. Then equipment was developed that “sweeps” the nuts on the orchard floor into compact rows between the trees, after which — much like the pickers that scoop up golf balls at a driving range — a harvester “vacuums” up the nuts, incorporating an aspirator which blows off extraneous material. The nuts ride up a conveyor to be deposited into the nut cart on the back of the harvester. Once full, the nuts are offloaded into a box to be trucked to an HGO wash plant.
To facilitate harvesting, Tim said, “We keep our floors very clean and flat.” The Amans follow the philosophy of “pick early; pick often,” generally harvesting each orchard twice, picking a third time if price and weather are good. If it gets too muddy, the nuts will pick up too much moisture, and it will be difficult to run the harvester. In good conditions, the harvester can run at 6.5 miles per hour. Five people work the Aman acres: two run the sweeper, two the harvester, and one boxes and ships. The brothers also develop and sell 80,000-100,000 tree starts annually and manage 300 acres of hazelnut trees for some owners who bought their tree starts. The starts may be derived from the pruned branches of the trees or started from a tissue culture, enabling the release of new varieties.
With hazelnuts’ short harvest window, October can be extremely stressful for growers, as they spend 11 months working toward that one month of harvest. As such, HGO decided to increase its liaising efforts this year, hiring Grower Relations Manager Ryan Flaherty in July. Having worked previously as the grower services manager for Diamond Foods and on the production side in a vineyard, Flaherty brought the experience and expertise needed for the job, for which he said, “I am the voice to the growers from the cooperative and the voice from the growers to the cooperative.” With his primary focus being to ensure the lines of communication are always open, Flaherty said, “Making sure that everything runs flawlessly is helpful for both the plant and the growers.”
FOOD SAFETY AND QUALITY. Such communication and interaction also are critical because hazelnut food safety and quality begin at harvest and continue through to retail:
- Foreign object detection. Because hazelnuts are harvested from the ground and even shell fragments are considered by FDA to be foreign objects, foreign object detection and rejection begins at the orchard, and the hazelnuts undergo seven methods of detection from field to distribution: mechanical, aspiration, destoners, Xray, laser machines/cameras, metal detectors, and the human eye.
- Wash plant. From the orchard, the nuts go to one of 12 wash plants, where they are cleaned, tested, and dried to 9% moisture.
- At the plant. Following a strict chain of custody, the nuts are trucked to the HGO processing plant where they are tested for moisture, and “any defects that might cause alarm.” Samples are sent to a third-party lab to ensure against any HGO conflict of interest. “Most processors test internally,” Clute said. “But we want to ensure we have the full trust of our grower-base that there is no conflict.” The nuts are weighed, and gently off-loaded into underground pits, with each lot coded for traceability, then run through an aspirator and destoner in the second round of foreign object detection and rejection. Once cleaned, the nuts are conveyed up into a silo, each of which holds 2.5 million pounds and has a specially designed chute which allows them to fall gently so as to not incur damage. The nuts remain in the silo until they are scheduled for production.
- If for export. From the silos, the nuts will be conveyed into the plant where they are electronically sorted by size. Those of large and jumbo varieties are generally set for export, so they are run through USDA inspection guidelines, certified, then packaged in yellow bulk bags which have become indicative of their high quality, Clute said.
- If domestic. The small to medium varieties, intended for domestic use, go from sizing to shelling. Some shelled hazelnuts are distributed domestically, but most U.S. product is shelled. X-ray machines are placed before the cracking equipment, and aspirators placed after it to separate out the shells. All equipment is stainless steel for cleanability, and all conveyances enclosed to contain the dust. The resulting nuts (or kernels, as the fruit is more accurately termed) are graded and separated into six sizes; run through two sets of laser sorters to detect and reject any with defects, mold, etc.; then spread on open conveyors for visual quality checks. A USDA inspection also is conducted at this point, by a USDA inspector or Customer Assisted Inspection Program (CAIP)-certified person. “We also conduct our own QC testing — and our checks are much more stringent than USDA requires,” Clute said.
- Steam pasteurization. The nuts are transferred to a stainless-steel tote for pasteurizing. The totes have a grated plate near the bottom to allow for air circulation and enable pathogenic kill.
FROM RAW TO RTE. At this point, the nuts pass from raw to ready to eat (RTE). “This side of the wall is unpasteurized. Once it passes through the wall, we’re in the RTE area,” Costa said. Samples are again tested with HGO operating under a positive release program, so nothing is shipped until test results are final and a COA generated.
The RTE area is positively pressurized, so air filters out of the room, and external, potentially contaminated, air is not brought inward. After pasteurizing and testing, the nuts can go in several directions:
- Roasting. The nuts are leveled out and roasted at various times and temperatures depending on the desired roast level. They are then cooled, loaded into totes, and queued for packaging. In 2018, HGO conducted a quality test of roaster settings for flavor and texture. After evaluating more than 50 combinations, HGO adjusted its roaster to consistently produce its Gold Standard.
- Slicing or dicing. The pieced nuts may be sent to foodservice or manufacturing facilities sliced or diced to their standards, or they may be packaged for retail.
- Butters or pastes. The HGO plant is a dry facility except for a single segregated room in which industrial butters and pastes are made and packaged for foodservice or manufacturing. With its coated floors and trench drains, it is the only area in which water is used for processing or cleaning, and access is limited.
- Retail. HGO also packages whole roasted and natural kernels for retail. The cooperative is the first to develop and sell a retail line of seasoned hazelnuts; its Oregon Orchard line includes Cinnamon Sugar, Rosemary, Himalayan Salt, Sweet & Spicy BBQ, and Southwest Chili Pepper, and a variety of chocolate-covered nuts.
- Bulk packaging. The pasteurized nuts — sliced, diced, or whole — also may go direct to 25-pound cases or bulk packaging.
With capabilities to store and process all available tonnage into whole, sliced, diced, pastes, butters, and other formats, HGO is well on its way to re-introducing and creating a new niche for this old-but-new-again nut. Whether it will become the next almond is yet to be seen, but if the current pace is retained, the hazelnut will, at least, become known for more than Nutella and flavored coffees.