Not so nutty: $900,000 USDA grant to U of M supports hazelnut as Upper Midwest crop
ST. PAUL Is there a hazelnut industry in Minnesota's future? The U.S. Department of Agriculture thinks so and has pledged to spend nearly $1 million to help develop one. The University of Minnesota was awarded a $904,000 USDA grant Friday to deve...
Is there a hazelnut industry in Minnesota's future?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture thinks so and has pledged to spend nearly $1 million to help develop one.
The University of Minnesota was awarded a $904,000 USDA grant Friday to develop "a viable bush-type hazelnut industry in the Upper Midwest."
Professor Don Wyse said hazelnuts are a long-standing subject of university research and among a group of plants viewed as "the next generation of crops for the Minnesota landscape." The university is scouting for perennials that can generate farm income and help the environment with a "continuous living cover on the landscape."
At a research site in Rosemount, Minn., scientists have long been trying to cross Minnesota's native wild hazelnuts with European hazelnut varieties. Wyse said the grant money will nudge the work in a slightly different direction toward fostering a market for the native hazelnut.
"The question is, 'Can you develop the native plant found here in Minnesota into a viable food and energy crop?'" said Wyse, a professor in the agronomy and plant genetics department.
The hazelnut funding is among a series of Agriculture Department grants to support small specialty crops, such as cucumbers, raspberries and basil. These crops don't receive the research dollars lavished on commodity crops like corn and soybeans, but still have a niche.
Such grants sometimes serve as fodder for comedians and critics of the federal government, because they are easy to mock. But the grants sometimes do bear fruit.
The idea of developing a wine industry in frosty Minnesota once was scoffed at. Now, "it's becoming a real industry in Minnesota," said university spokeswoman Becky Beyers. On Friday, the cold-climate wine industry also received $2.5 million in USDA research money that will be split between Cornell University in New York and the University of Minnesota.
As for the homegrown hazelnut, Wyse said the industry's future doesn't look impossibly far off. Hazelnuts have a variety of uses. The nuts can be eaten and the oil can be used as flavoring or processed into biodiesel.
"There are buyers in the region for these products; they already exist," Wyse said. "Candy companies, local bakers, are already buying their nuts from Washington or Oregon. They are very interested in buying local if the produce is there."
But as with any new industry, would-be hazelnut growers face roadblocks. The plants are difficult to propagate, Wyse said. And the infrastructure for a hazelnut industry here doesn't really exist.
Just give it time, he said.
"We're just starting," Wyse said. "We're projecting that we'll make progress within five years. As we look at the development of this enterprise in Wisconsin and Minnesota, I think we're talking 10 years."
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