Willamette Valley Hazelnut Farmers Recover After 2021 Ice Storm

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – In the days leading up to Valentine’s Day 2021, Loren Birkemeier, a Canby hazelnut grower and farm owner and operator, said he was expecting an ice storm . What he didn’t expect was for his grove to be completely razed.

He said that usually when he looks out the window of his house towards the orchard, he sees a wall of trees. On the morning of the ice storm, he could see his neighbour’s house and mailboxes.

“My 20-year-old Yamhill orchard was about six feet tall and it should be 16 feet tall,” he said, describing the damage done to his Yamhill variety hazelnut trees. “They were tilted to the ground with a huge load of ice, many of them splitting and breaking.”

They were his old trees. He said the worst damage he had seen was in his young orchards, where the trees were between five and nine years old. He said some trees were split down the middle, almost looking like a peeled banana.

As the ice began to melt, some trees surprised him and straightened their branches, heaving a sigh of relief as the extra weight went away. Others left a mess behind.

Birkemeier said clearing the debris was an ongoing process throughout the next year. He said he and other farm workers made at least four trips through the orchard with chainsaws, trying to get rid of broken and damaged wood, rehabilitating any trees that might survive and pulling out stumps from trees that were a total loss.

It’s been a lot of work, but Birkemeier said his family farm is recovering well. Hazel trees are very resilient, he said, and can often recover quickly. When a branch is pruned or broken, the tree reacts by growing a new one. As long as a tree hasn’t suffered catastrophic damage to its trunk, it seems to bounce back quite well through the growing season, he said.

Birkemeier Farms lost approximately 38% of its hazelnut tree canopy. Birkemeier said he expected this would lead to a 38% loss in the farm’s nut yield, but it didn’t. Yield was down, but not as significantly as he had expected. He thinks the reduced canopy may have allowed more sunlight to reach branches that weren’t previously exposed to as much light, resulting in more nuts.

In fact, despite extreme damage to some hazelnut farms in the Willamette Valley, the state still saw a record harvest in 2021, according to Nik Wiman, orchard specialist at Oregon State University and senior extension professor. for the hazelnut industry.

Wiman said that for several years before the ice storm, seed crop farmers had switched to growing hazelnuts. Their orchards are now reaching maturity and their nuts have contributed significantly to this in 2021.

Oregon State University says 99% of the nation’s hazelnuts are produced in the Willamette Valley, and the nuts are often shipped overseas and used in products like Ferrero Rocher chocolates.

Had Oregon not delivered its usual performance, the effects could have been felt around the world.

Wiman said he often responded to orchards with problems and about a week and a half after the ice storm he began going on tours to assess the damage.

Like Birkemeier, he saw trees peeled like bananas and older trees toppled. He said he saw severe damage to older, historic areas. He said older trees are susceptible to eastern filbert blight, a fungal disease that severely weakens tree branches. He thought the new varieties, developed by Oregon State University, seemed to weather the storm better. These varieties are genetically modified to resist disease.

Wiman said he came across farms where entire fields had to be replanted.

“When you are a farmer and you depend on the income from these trees. It’s hard, you know, to take them out and start over, because hazelnuts ripen very slowly,” he said.

It will take several years for newly planted trees to produce nuts. He said some orchards have definitely lost revenue in 2021.

While the hardiness of the hazel tree was a blessing for some farmers, it was a curse for others. During a roundtable with Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., in December, Ryan Flaherty, grower relations manager for Hazelnut Growers of Oregon, explained that some farmers are struggling to get reimbursed for their damaged crops. . The way the tree assistance program rules are currently written, arborists can only receive federal reimbursement if they have experienced more than 15% tree mortality.

Since many trees were damaged but continued to grow, several farmers were not eligible to receive this aid.

“You never know when a hazel tree is dead, because even if it splits on the ground, in many cases it will still produce suckers. So a tree could be replaced by a sucker by a new shoe from the roots,” Wiman explained.

Birkemeier said his family asked for help through the Farm Service Agency.

Today, as most farmers leave the ice storm behind, they face new challenges: supply chain issues and the cost of fertilizer.

Wiman said production costs have skyrocketed and nutrient prices in 2022 have tripled. He expects many farmers to reduce what they supply to their trees. He said that puts a lot of pressure on growers to price their nuts high enough to cover the cost of production.

Birkemeire said that as prices rise, the price of his merchandise will increase. But eventually, it might catch up with him and other Oregon hazelnut growers.

“It’s starting to get a little scary as our customer base is not buying Nutella anymore because things are getting expensive. So that’s something we’re all aware of,” he said.

As for the cost of fertilizer, Birkemeier said the ice storm taught him to get back to basics when it comes to fertilizing. He thinks the extra fertilizers may have been the reason some farms were hit so hard. He believes that if trees grow too fast, they might not be as strong as trees that grew at a more natural rate.

Birkemeier said he looks forward to what the 2022 season might bring. He thinks the new growth that sprouted after the 2021 storm could pay off with a big yield now that the trees have had more time to heal.

He doesn’t plan to leave the business anytime soon and said even with the ice storm and the heat dome in 2021 he would still recommend more farmers to join the industry.

“We’re farmers, we’re here for the money, but really, we’re just stewards of what we have. If you don’t take care of what you have, it won’t pay off in the future and it won’t be something kids can do,” he said.

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