Hazelnuts a growing concern in B.C.'s Fraser Valley
Industry recovering from devastating blight, while world buyer Ferrero shows interest
When Helmut Hooge offers a sample of his small, smooth, cream-coloured hazelnuts they're still warm from being roasted at his home in the Fraser Valley where farming them has come, gone and now come again.
"We are fortunate that we're able to grow them," says the 84-year-old who retired as an engineer in 1990 to become a hazelnut farmer.
The damp and fertile soil in British Columbia's Fraser Valley makes it a great place to grow hazelnuts, but a blight swirling across North America killed off most orchards in B.C. by the early 2010s, including many of Hooge's trees.
"It was stressful," he said.
Eventually, the disease, called Eastern Filbert Blight, destroyed 90 per cent of B.C.'s hazelnut orchards, most of which are in the Fraser Valley, reducing the average provincial yield of nuts from more than 450 tonnes per year to around 18 tonnes per year.
Hazelnuts have been farmed in the Fraser Valley since the 1930s, but since the 1960s there's been a dark shadow following the industry as the blight inched its way closer. It arrived in B.C. from Washington in 2002.
Over the next 15 years, the blight, caused by a fungal pathogen, preyed upon hazelnuts in the Fraser Valley, overwhelming them with ominous-looking cankers.
In the 1970s, Canada attempted to halt the spread of this blight by banning the movement of hazlenut trees into B.C. from other parts of Canada. But the blight still made it to B.C., most likely carried by the wind.
"There seemed no way out and the industry was going to die," said Hooge.
Although the blight has not disappeared, farmers in B.C. like Hooge are slowly making a comeback thanks in part to new types of blight-resistant hazelnut trees devised in Oregon.
They also are getting help from the provincial government, which in 2018 pledged $300,000 in funding over three years to replace hundreds of hectares of dead and diseased orchards.
Last year, the province said 8,254 blight-resistant trees were planted around Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Langley and Pender Island. Another 3,000 trees susceptible to blight were removed.
"It's really nice to see the resurgence of our industry and we are all fairly happy with the government that they are helping us," said Hooge.
There could be limits to the rebirth, though, because the bans put in place to attempt to halt the blight are being lifted. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which regulates pests, says the blight is too widespread to try to continue to limit its spread any longer.
B.C. growers, who oppose the government's decision to lift the bans, fear that decision could allow a new strain to arrive from other parts of North America and sink the industry again.
"I'm very worried because these trees are bred to be resistant to one strain of the blight and if we get another strain in here, we're like dead," said Hooge.
The CFIA says it will talk more with growers in B.C. about their fears but it also hopes that allowing plants to freely move across North America could boost B.C.'s hazelnut sector by improving access to disease-resistant varieties.
Fears over a blight resurgence in B.C. comes at a time when growers say their nuts are being recognized by the biggest buyer of hazelnuts in the world — Italy's Ferrero.
Ferrero, which uses the nut in its Ferrero Rocher chocolates and Nutella spread, buys around a quarter of all the nuts grown around the world. In 2006, it built a plant in Ontario, which farmers there saw as a opportunity to grow more hazelnuts.
Ferrero is not yet buying nuts from B.C. as production here is minuscule compared to countries like Turkey, Italy and the U.S., which produces around 29,000 tonnes of hazelnuts annually, mostly in Oregon.
B.C. growers here have given the company samples upon request, and the response about their quality has been encouraging.
Kevin Hooge, 40, is excited for the future of hazelnut growing in B.C. His family has one farm down the road from Helmut Hooge where it has established its company: Fraser Valley Hazelnuts Ltd.
The two Hooges aren't directly related, but believe they share some lineage. What they also share is a passion to have hazelnut farming become an important crop in B.C.
"Really the sky's the limit," Kevin Hooge said. "There's so many things you can do with it — protein powder, nut milk, flour — it's just unlimited."
Kevin Hooge grew up in a poultry-farming family, but over the past five years has been planting hazelnut orchards and upgrading a processing plant.
Fraser Valley Hazelnuts now buys most of the nuts produced in the region, washes and dries them, and then sells them to grocery stores, restaurants, even a gelato shop and a brewer.
Kevin Hooge's goal is to get more local farmers growing hazelnuts and sell to a big player like Ferrero.
"It's coming," he said. "It's just the trees are young and immature and they're not producing yet ... those bigger buyers are what we need in the future."