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.
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.