Working with germplasm from around the world, OSU breeder Shawn Mehlenbacher turns disaster into opportunity for Oregon’s now-thriving hazelnut industry.
Late each fall, Shawn Mehlenbacher plants hazelnut trees at the Oregon State University research orchard in Corvallis. Over his 33-year career as the university’s hazelnut breeder, he’s put 150,000 trees in the ground.
That impressive number has resulted in the release of 12 hazelnut varieties resistant to the deadly eastern filbert blight. By all accounts, Mehlenbacher has saved an industry worth $202 million and growing steadily.
“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Shawn,” says Rich Burkemeier, who’s been farming hazelnuts in Canby for more than three decades. “If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have the new selections he’s come up with. There would be no hazelnut industry in Oregon.”
One reason Mehlenbacher has succeeded so dramatically is that he’s traveled the world collecting germplasm, the plant material — scion wood or seed — needed to grow the parents for crosses that have led to releases like ‘Willamette’, the first in 1990, right up to ‘PollyO’, the latest and perhaps the greatest. He’s been to at least 20 countries, including Italy, England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, Serbia, Crimea, Russia, Georgia and Azerbaijan and has been able to gather an incredibly diverse gene pool that’s represented in the material stored at the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Corvallis, the largest in the world.
With a bit of serendipity, he found his way to Turkey, the world’s largest producer of hazelnuts, in 1993. The year before, during a banquet at the International Hazelnut Congress in Alba, Italy, he happened to sit next to a researcher from Turkey.
“We had a nice conversation and he invited me to Turkey,” Mehlenbacher recalls. “At that time, it was impossible to get official permission to collect and bring stuff back. But I was able to form a relationship and bring back material. Sitting next to a guy in Italy was key.”
An even larger collection came in 2004. Turkey still prohibited the sharing of hazelnut germplasm, but the Ministry of Trade changed its mind after the U.S. filed a lawsuit over the country dumping hazelnuts on the U.S. market, a violation of trade agreements.
The world market for hazelnuts is huge. If we double production, we will have no trouble selling it at a premium price. We do a better job than our competitors.
“That dragged on, but eventually Polly Owen (director of the Hazelnut Industry Office) got a call,” Mehlenbacher says. “‘What do you want to make this lawsuit go away?’ they asked. She said we wanted access to Turkish germplasm. They said, ‘Yes.’ That was big.”
Another piece of good luck happened in 2002 when he arranged a trip to Russia with colleague David Zaurov, a Russian who arranged appointments and helped with language barriers and phyto certificates. One day, they made an unscheduled stop at a village market where he found four old women selling hazelnuts. Half of what he bought came home to OSU with him.
“From that one market, we ended up with a dozen EFB-resistant seedlings,” he says. “Every once in a while, you get lucky.”
Sometimes you don’t, though. This year, prices for nuts have fallen because of Chinese tariffs and the gutting of the Turkish lira. That hasn’t discouraged growers — old or new — who are planting acres of hazelnuts by the thousands. Some are grass seed growers looking for alternate or add-on crops who have noticed how perfect the clay soils and mild climate of the Willamette Valley are for hazelnuts and have shifted acreage into orchards. The increase is phenomenal, says Meredith Nagely, manager of the Oregon Hazelnut Commission. In 10 years, acreage dedicated to hazelnuts grew from 28,000 in 2009 to 80,000 in 2019. No one, it seems, is worried about prices.
“The world market for hazelnuts is huge,” Mehlenbacher says. “If we double production, we will have no trouble selling it at a premium price. We do a better job than our competitors.”
Still, there are issues with the global market where Oregon exports most of its nuts, so the commission and growers are beginning to court U.S. companies and educate the public about the health benefits, versatility and what they consider the superior taste of hazelnuts. Optimism reigns in the hazelnut industry, and growth continues at a fast pace.
Except for ‘Jefferson’, an impressive in-shell hazelnut variety, OSU’s releases are for the kernel market, which is where the future lies, according to Nagely and seconded by Mehlenbacher. Of the varieties he released, he points to ‘Yamhill’, ‘Dorris’, ‘Wepster’, ‘McDonald’ and ‘PollyO’ as the best. Now the industry needs nurseries to step up and produce them. Fortunately, micropropagation — the process of multiplying plants by tissue culture — has allowed for much quicker production, and growers are happily beginning to buy new releases.
Mehlenbacher smiles as he stands in the Nut House cracking nuts one by one. His life’s work has changed the face of the hazelnut industry. He’s pleased when he thinks about the future. He’ll leave a legacy, and even in retirement, he’ll breed the tree he’s so passionate about.