Imagine growing a source of protein in your garden on a plant that could easily grow in the wild without any maintenance. Imagine this plant is so deeply-rooted that it can survive a drought. Imagine only having to plant it once and then harvesting from it for the next 25 years. Imagine grinding it up and spreading it on a slice of toast, maybe with a little chocolate. Yum! The tasty ingredient in Nutella could likely be a gateway drug into restoration agriculture: Weâ€™re talking about hazelnuts.
Wild hazelnuts (aka filberts) grow throughout the Midwest, eastern U.S., and parts of California, Washington and Oregon. There are two wild natives, the American hazelnut (Corylus americana) and the beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta), while many cultivars are commercially available.
A few years ago, I was involved with planting some food forests on urban tracts of land where blighted properties had been torn down. Our challenge was to provide foods that are recognizable, low maintenance, appealing to the neighbors, adapted to our climate and nutritious. For community gardens where care-taking is inconsistent, perennials are ideal. Berries are a great fit, but in a food desert like where we were growing, quality protein and fats are harder to find and are so very essential. We decided to try planting some hazelnuts, and they have done well.
A volunteer gardener Ann McCarthy who helped us with the project offered a bit of advice for the home or community gardener interested in growing hazelnuts: â€śOne key is to make sure that the cultivars you get can cross-pollinate each other so buy from a knowledgeable source, such as Cliff England. And remember, they are pollinated by the wind blowing the pollen from one to anotherâ€”not by insectsâ€”so plant the different cultivars near each other and in a spot with a bit of breeze.”
Restoring The Land, Restoring Our Communities
In a small way, these shrubs are restoring urban landscapes while they restore community and provide some essential needs. Behold the basic concept of restoration agriculture.
To a large extent, modern gardening mimics big ag instead of nature. Based on annual crops, the robotic and linear repetition of plant-harvest-replant not only creates a monoculture, it also ensures monotony. Agricultural systems based on annual crops have been taken to extremes, and the larger ecosystems have paid the price for machine-centric standardization and convenience in the fields.
In response, the concept of restoration agriculture harkens back to wilder roots. Finding inspiration from nature itself, this method uses perennials to restore soil health and ecosystem stability, while providing an abundance of nutritious, real food in a beautiful forest, providing what our bodies and spirits hunger forâ€”not to mention the wildlife habitat they provide, too.
If you have trouble envisioning how a wilder landscape can work if humans are intended to participate in it, Mark Shepardâ€™s book Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers (Acres U.S.A., 2014) describes scenarios that make it all seem very possible.
In his introductory chapter, Shepard describes desertification of the Midwest, Americaâ€™s so-called breadbasket. He contrasts a wasteland of lifeless, depleted soil with a vibrant permaculture farm. He describes the sensations of life surrounding him, from the softness of the earth to the sounds of frogs and toads. He spots several types of birds, butterflies, and â€śa host of other insects chirped and trilled in a delicious cacophony that made me smile.â€ť But it wasnâ€™t just a walk in the park, he writes:
â€śIn addition to all of this, I was surrounded by food! The hazelnut shrubs I passed had already been harvested, as had the cherries, mulberries, kiwis and pears. Apples in a bounty of red and gold were being harvested into pallet bins while the nearby chestnuts finished ripening, awaiting their turn for harvest. Several steers grazed on the abundant grass and pigs snuffled about under the hazelnut bushes looking for dropped precious gems.â€ť
The farm he describes had previously been â€śa bare-dirt cornfield,â€ť but it had been healed.
The Benefits Of Hazelnuts
When Shepard goes into detail about different plants he recommends for this transformational process, hazelnuts near the top of the list. Theyâ€™re an overlooked yet abundant wild food with some very appealing qualities. They are an average-sized bush with average-looking leaves, but the nut kernels are very high in vitamin E. The oil can be pressed out of the kernel and the remaining nutty meal is 30 percent protein. When processed sustainably, the nut hulls themselves can power a processing facility, producing practically no waste. Shepard writes that shells burn hotter than wood and even coalâ€”and much cleaner. Of interest, particularly to urban gardens where heavy metals could be present in the soil, is this factoid: â€śHazelnut shell ash has been shown to bind and make unavailable several heavy metals, most notably cadmium.â€ť
Commercial production of hazelnuts is gaining steam, as well, but the wild plants require a little taming to produce consistently and in more geographic regions, especially in response to global climate change. The Arbor Day Foundation just landed a $3 million grant from the USDA to improve hybridization of hazelnuts, picking the best from the wild and domesticated varieties. With the help of a consortium of growers, The Arbor Day Foundation has been testing cultivars and selectively breeding for cold hardiness, drought tolerance, and resistance to a fungal disease called eastern filbert blight. The groupâ€™s website states, â€śIf successful, the expansion of hazelnut production through the Consortium’s research will give the U.S. the potential of becoming the world’s leading sustainable hazelnut producer and address critical issues in areas of agriculture, environment, wildlife habitat, society, health, hunger and sustainable energy.â€ť
Hazelnuts, like all woody plants, can also be a source of biomass, and it requires some coppicing on a regular basis. Trimming the branches mimics the natural browsing of animals and rids the plants of diseased areas. Compared to annual agricultureâ€™s routine of harvesting entire plants, prepping soil, rotating crops and replanting each year, a little annual trimming seems like a minimal investment for the rich rewards of densely nutritious nuts. Shepard optimistically reports that the practice of coppicing hazelnuts in Spain has kept the same plants producing nuts for 1,600 years.
Restoration agriculture aims to use abandoned or otherwise marginal land to add to the food supply without imposing agriculture on wildlands, a serious issue to consider as biofuel crops are replacing fossil fuels, and land is required to grow them. Perennials of all sorts have been studied for their potential for biofuel production, and the U.S. Department of Defense is very interested in hazelnuts because they produce the most oil per acre of any other perennial. Could this unassuming, overlooked, native plant become the source of oil to power the vehicles and heat the homes of the future?