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Demand drives Ontario hazelnut industry

John Maurer tends to the hazelnut trees on his Alma-area farm. He’s one of a growing number of producers. [Damon Maclean]

Mention hazelnuts and Ferrero Rocher and Nutella may come to mind. It’s no coincidence that those two food favourites were instrumental in the launch of the burgeoning hazelnut industry in Ontario.

Hazelnuts began to catch the attention of Ontario researchers, farmers and the government in 2006 when Ferrero opened a manufacturing plant in the city of Brantford.

Since that time, the number of trees planted in the province has increased, with researchers continuing to monitor which varieties thrive in our climate.

The numbers here – thousands of pounds per year – are still dwarfed by international producers, but there’s plenty of room to grow given demand. Turkey is the world’s leader in hazelnut production, growing more than 70 per cent of global supply, more than 420,000 tonnes. Italy is the number two supplier at 14.5 per cent, while the U.S. is at about five per cent.

Adam Dale, college professor emeritus in the University of Guelph’s department of plant agriculture, saw the opening of the Ferrero plant in Brantford as an opportunity, approaching the company about the development of an Ontario hazelnut industry. In 2008 he began research trials in conjunction with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) and the Ontario Hazelnut Association.

More producers have climbed on board in Ontario, including John Maurer, who’s been on his property outside of Alma for the past 48 years where he’s grown such staples as corn and barley. Today, a former hayfield is home to his relatively recent hazelnut endeavour.

“I saw the write-up in one of the farm papers that said that if you can grow apples, you can grow hazelnuts. So, we went to a meeting and we kind of like what we heard,” he said of his decision to grow the tree nuts.

Maurer says the nut industry hadn’t been all that popular until a couple of years back when health food trends emerged. “Nuts are supposed to be healthy for you.”

Grimo Nut Nursery in Niagara-on-the-Lake offered to buy from Maurer everything he produces. However, he has since discovered a market of his own.

“I’ve been basically marketing to the Mennonites stands around here. And they’re selling them for me, so we have them in four different stands right now,” he explained. Wellesley Fall Harvest Farm recently opened their storefront onsite, providing another location for Maurer’s hazelnuts.

Maurer is a member of the Ontario Hazelnut Association and has witnessed the growth in the industry.

Maurer’s lot has at least 1,500 hazelnut trees now. He estimates that this year’s yield could be 15 times last year’s.

“We had about 100 pounds last year and we’re expecting from 1,000 pounds to maybe 1,500.” Although, it is suggested the nuts grow best in moist and fertile environments this year’s dry season seems to have caused a rapid growth for Maurer.

A tree produces for anywhere from 40 to 50 years, with those on his farm just three to six years of age. With orchards, Maurer says he keeps a tree as long as it produces high quality nuts. Harvest begins in mid-September, and it takes Maurer and his family until around Mid-October to yield the end product from the tress.

Maurer says he is having too much fun to retire and doesn’t see himself calling it a day for a time to come. “They’ll probably carry me off here,” he jokes.

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