By Connor Lynch
TILLSONBURG — Ferrero, the buyer for half the world’s supply of hazelnuts, wants another 23,000 acres planted in Ontario over the next seven years to supply its production plant in Brantford, opening a new niche market for Ontario farmers.
The plant, which makes Ferrero Rocher chocolates, Nutella, and Tic Tacs, currently imports 10,000 tonnes of shelled hazelnuts a year from Turkey.
This is good news for farmers looking for a way to make use of spare acreage on their farm, as Ontario only grows 300 to 400 acres (about 150 tonnes) of hazelnuts.
“It’s barely a ripple, but it’s still millions and millions of dollars,” said Ontario Hazelnut Association (OHA) vice-president Martin Hodgson.
There’s no way farmers can oversupply, said Hodgson, a hazelnut producer near Tillsonburg. “We could put 100,000 acres in if we had the land,” Hodgson told Farmers Forum. Ontario’s current demand for hazelnuts is the equivalent of 42,000 acres, with 25,000 of it going to the Ferrero plant.
Start-up costs aren’t cheap. Hodgson said farmers should plant an absolute minimum of 10 acres, and suggests 20 acres would be better. Anything less and “the animals and critters” will eat or ruin a significant portion of them. Planting costs are $5,000 to $6,000 per acre. Harvesting requires a sweeper and a harvester, both of which cost about US $50,000 new, Hodgson says.
But it’s easy to plant and easy to harvest, according to Hodgson, who says you can grow hazelnuts — typically 134 mature trees per acre — anywhere you can grow apples.
Producers have to be patient. The trees will start producing saleable hazelnuts in five years and hit full production in about 10 years. An 18 ft.-tall mature tree in a good year will produce about 10 to 20 lb. of hazelnuts. Oregon State University research puts average yields at about 2,300 lb. per acre. At last year’s commercial prices of $1.75/lb., a producer can gross $4,025 an acre. Local markets pay even more. Hodgson puts the average price for farm-gate hazelnuts at between $3 and $5 per pound.
The trees also last 50 to 100 years, if they can avoid the Eastern Filbert Blight (EFB). Hodgson has had his own run-in with the fungus. He calls it “the reason there are no hazelnut trees east of the Rockies.” It gets under the bark and kills the tree in three to five years. The first visible symptom, an explosion of black pustules, doesn’t happen until a year and a half after infection. Hodgson’s original crop of hazelnuts that he planted in 1994 fell victim to the blight. He lost 96 per cent of his trees.
However, he’s optimistic about the future, planning to expand from six to 20 acres as most of the trees now are either “immune or very very resistant” to the fungus. He adds there are nurseries that have begun selling immune and resistant varieties, and the University of Guelph has developed techniques to clone six to eight EFB-resistant varieties of hazelnuts, several from Hodgson’s own orchard.
There’s a growing market for Ontario growers. Turkey produces 74 per cent of the world’s hazelnut supply but is facing production declines due to an aging farming population and increasing global demand.
“Most plots are one to two hectares on old farms on hillsides,” Hodgson said. “Old people are left on farms with no help, and (Turkey has) poor processing and drying.”
In spite of high demand, Ontario needs processing capacity as the Ferrero plant only buys hazelnuts that have already been washed, sanitized, dried and cracked. OHA director Randy Wilson is looking at setting up a processor in Brantford.
Ferrero is not the only buyer desperate for nuts. Oregon-based George Packing Company Inc. also buys processed hazelnuts and “was begging” for them despite Oregon’s 30,000 acres of current production and a growth rate of 3,000 acres per year, Hodgson said. “They’re turning away buyers because they don’t have enough hazelnuts.”
The OHA has a cost-analysis function under the resources tab on its website for farmers to estimate the cost of entry. Visit www.ontariohazelnuts.com.