Hazelnuts are difficult to find nowadays, and the majority of them are of Turkish origin. Now, this might change: Rutgers Horticultural Farm 3 in East Brunswick has a storage shed full of hazelnuts, which were grown locally in New Jersey.
“This is probably about 800 pounds or so. This year we harvested about 3,000 pounds,” said John Capik, a research technician at Rutgers.
Thomas Molnar, an associate professor at Rutgers, has been researching hazelnuts for 20 years. He says: “This represents one of the first potential nut crops that we could grow commercially in our region.”
Molnar’s senior research assistant Capik says: “They’ve been trying to grow them for hundreds of years in the eastern U.S. At every turn they die from Eastern filbert blight.””
Eastern filbert blight is fungal disease that hazelnut trees couldn’t combat until recently. And it’s all thanks to Molnar and his team. They’ve successfully cultivated four varieties of hazelnuts that not only can withstand the fungus, but they also shed enough nuts to float upon and nosh on for a lifetime.
“Were growing a crop that’s healthy for the environment and if consumed in the right way is very healthy for people,” Molnar said.
The demand for fresh hazelnuts is huge. Chefs are creating decadent spreads, putting them in sweets and even on pizza. Researchers told Murdock local farmers are lining up to grow them.
“We have a lot of excitement in the farm community for it,” Molnar said.
There are no commercial farms making money off hazelnuts in the East yet. But, about 30 pioneer farmers within a 100-mile radius from the Rutgers farm are giving them the old college try. The test farms just got trees from Rutgers this year, but it will take five to six more before they produce nuts to sell.
Molnar said people have been looking for a crop like this because it’s sustainable. Hazelnut orchards can thrive for decades with minimal human effort. They also have few disease or pest problems, and are harvested mechanically and can stay fresh for one to two years if stored with the shell on.