If a national research group has its way, U.S. farmers will soon add a new crop to their fields -- hazelnuts.
Traditionally known as a European crop used to make sweets and healthy cooking oils, hazelnuts may have even bigger potential as a bio-fuel and feed for livestock, researchers say. And hazelnuts are environmentally friendly to grow according to researchers at the Arbor Day Foundation, a tree conservation organization.
The U.S. currently produces only about five percent of the world's hazelnuts -- and almost all of that comes from Oregon, an area of the U.S. with a climate ideal for tree growth. But a consortium of the Arbor Day Foundation and three universities -- the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Oregon State University and Rutgers University -- thinks the U.S. can do better.
To increase the hazelnut's presence in American fields, researchers first have to develop a hybrid that will grow well in a variety of climates across the country.
The group, which has been conducting research for more than a decade, received a $1.3 million grant last fall from the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- it's largest to date -- to help make hazelnuts a commercially viable crop. The research had previously been funded by smaller grants or by the institutions themselves.
Scott Josiah, state forester and director of the Nebraska Forrest Service says both the economic and environmental potential of hazelnuts were likely motivating factors behind the USDA's decision to award the grant.
"They are looking for crops that show potential," said Josiah. "Hazelnuts will grow where other crops won't -- such as on sloped terrain."
The versatility of the hazelnut is what makes it so appealing as a new crop, researchers say. It's used in candies and as a food supplement. As a cooking oil, it has a similar composition to olive oil with a high content of Omega-9 and Omega-6.
But it is also a promising source of energy as biodiesel, a clean-burning alternative fuel, now produced from renewable resources such as soybeans.
"Our preliminary research right now is showcasing that the amount of oil that you could get per acre would probably be up to twice as much as soybeans. Also just a composite of the oil has shown that it's a better mix of ingredients for biodiesel," said Ben Cohoon, hybrid hazelnut manager with the Arbor Day Foundation.
And once the oil is removed for other uses, the nut still has potential as a feedstock supplement because of its high protein content.
If all that weren't enough to make it an attractive crop, the hazelnut is also an environmentalist's dream. Because it is a perennial and only planted once, there is less soil erosion. As a woody plant (one with a wooden structural tissue), hazelnut bushes bring nutrients into the soil and absorb nitrogen and phosphorus from the air, which in turn improves soil quality -- more so than an annual crop would. Additionally, hazelnuts help enrich the soil when their leaves fall to the ground and decompose. They also require less water to grow and are drought-resistant.
"At the Arbor Day Foundation we think hazelnuts have a lot of potential both from a commercial crop aspect but also from an environmental quality aspect," Cohoon said.