Hazelnut commercialization reached a milestone last year when researchers planted their first set of second-generation hybrid hazelnuts. Those hybrids were a crossbreed of high-yield, disease-resistant plants grown in Nebraska and high quality plants grown in Oregon.
But plant experts are the first to admit they have a long way to go before hazelnuts become commercial. The long growing time of the plants prolongs the research period. In Nebraska, for example, hazelnut research has been going on for 10 years, and researchers estimate it will be another 20 years before a hybrid is ready for farmers to plant in the Midwest.
"As far as drawing conclusions, that's going to be a long-term project," said Troy Pabst, forestry properties manager for the Nebraska Forest Service, an affiliate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "If you take a hazelnut and plant it from seed in Nebraska we're talking about typically four years from the time you plant the seed to the time you are having your first small amount of production." The wait can sometimes be frustrating for both the researchers and the farmers, many of whom have expressed interest in producing hazelnuts.
"We want to get people interested in it, but we can't get them to a point that they're so interested that they want to start right now," Cohoon said.
Keith Olsen, president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation, predicts farmers will be receptive to hazelnuts as a crop.
"Farmers are always looking for new things that they can raise on their farms," said Olsen. "If it's an opportunity to raise something new that can add value to their operation, and if works well in Nebraska, then some will do it."
So for now, consortium researchers continue to tend to their test plots in hopes of developing a good hybrid.
The differing environmental conditions represented by the four research consortium members make an ideal hazelnut-growing laboratory. Oregon's mild winters foster the European variety well. New Jersey offers a growing location near the Atlantic seacoast. And Nebraska's cold winters and hot summers test the plants' hardiness.
"If they'll grow in Nebraska, I would say they would be really adaptive to most other areas within the United States," Pabst said.
While commercialization of this crop may still be years down the road, researchers are hopeful about the future of hazelnuts in the U.S.
"We're really excited to see how our research continues to move forward and eventually seeing bunches of acres of hazelnuts," Cohoon said.
ABCNews.com contributor Carson Stokebrand is a member of the ABC News on Campus bureau in Lincoln, Neb.