Oregon State University professor Shawn Mehlenbacher was awarded a five-year, $3.1 million research grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture to do research on blight-resistant hazelnut trees.
Hazelnut production is a massive industry, with a $3.26 billion market for hazelnut products (for example, Nutella) worldwide, and the Willamette Valley plays a vital role. Ninety-nine percent of the hazelnuts grown commercially in the US come from the Willamette Valley, with the other 1% coming from Washington state. This represents 3-5% of world hazelnut production. Taste for hazelnut products is not a new development in human history: fragments of shells have been found in archeological sites dating back to the Stone Age.
Eastern filbert blight (EFB) is a fungal disease native to eastern North America that severely affects European hazelnuts (the cultivar historically used for hazelnut production). The presence of EFB makes it impossible to grow hazelnuts commercially in most of the otherwise suitable regions of the US. For most of the last century, EFB was absent from coastal Oregon and Washington, allowing a hazelnut industry to emerge. EFB started to show up in southwest Washington in the 1960s and spread rapidly into Oregon, threatening to destroy the industry.
However, in the late 90s, Oregon State breeders released two cultivars with limited blight resistance. In 2005, they released the first cultivar with complete resistance to EFB. Since then, OSU breeders have released 10 more hazelnut cultivars with EFB resistance, including both producers and pollinizers.
Mehlenbacher and his colleagues have spent over 30 years developing hazelnut cultivars. It’s painstaking work—they plant and evaluate 4,000 to 6,000 seedlings per year, looking for plants both resistant to blight and capable of producing high-quality hazelnuts.
Funding from the USDA grant will go to studying hazelnut genetics (especially in regard to resistance to EFB), developing better cultivars, studying the fungus that causes EFB, and to educating growers about the new hazelnut cultivars.
By Daniel Watkins