Nut farmer Peter Haarmann stands in the midst of Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod surveying a variety of trees planted over the last nine years. Cows moo in the next field and the caws of crows can be heard overhead.
“The colonists fed the American hazelnut to the hogs,” says Haarmann. “They let the animals roam everywhere.”
The only hogs on Haarmann’s five‐and‐a‐half‐acre farm in Aquebogue are groundhogs, who love hazelnuts just as much as the above‐ground variety, hence the protective plastic tubing around the bottom of each tiny trunk.
The perforated tubing also acts as a cooling agent in the August heat, allows photosynthesis and prevents lateral branch growth to ensure a single‐stem tree with a branch canopy that is manageable at harvest time.
Haarmann planted 140 hazelnuts, or filberts, last spring. None of them is American. Native hazelnuts are smaller than their European cousins and, literally, harder to crack.
Haarmann, a Nassau BOCES construction teacher for 27 years, is in no rush to crack any nuts. Now retired, he remembers daydreaming as a child in Catholic school. “While the nuns were doing their thing, I was watching a farmer outside the window,” he says. “He was driving the same tractor I own today. I was always intrigued.”
Nutlets will be knocked off young trees for the first four or five years. “You don’t want nuts in that time. Reproduction takes away from stems and root development,” he says. “I’m not going to fertilize these trees. Survival is all I’m interested in right now. Maintain plants. Mow field.”
He’s establishing a nice turf so when the time is right for the nuts to come down, they are easy to pick up. A tree can produce for up to 75 years, pollinating in the winter. “Hazelnuts are a surface‐ rooted plant that digs loam,” he adds.
Aquebogue’s loam, a mix of sand, silt and clay, and its proximity to his home in Garden City, attracted him to the property in 2005, when he first envisioned growing pawpaws, a subtropical fruit native to the Appalachian Mountains.
He was ready to give up on the pawpaws due to the harsh winds on the North Fork, then a funny thing happened. The trees have very deep taproots, which grew to reach a level where they get enough moisture to thrive, even without rain.
“For a good five years, I thought they were dead, but now I’m not giving up on the pawpaws,” he says of the sweet, custard‐like fruit with a nut‐like shell.
Pawpaws, and previously planted walnuts and pecans, are on the back burner, while hazelnuts, specifically Yamhill and Dorris, have taken the lead.
The cultivars were developed at Oregon State University in Corvallis, part of the Willamette Valley in Oregon, from mostly Mediterranean and Turkish varieties. Yamhill was bred to produce small trees with a high nut yield, early nut maturity, high kernel percentage and good kernel quality, according to scientists at the university.
Even better, the cultivars have “complete resistance” to the eastern filbert blight (EFB) caused by the fungus Anisogramma anomala. The deadly fungus creates pustules on tree limbs that release spores. Spread by wind and rain, it can kill a tree in two years. It made its way to the Pacific Northwest where all of the commercial hazelnuts in America are grown, making up 5 percent of the world’s production. “A considerable amount of money,” says Haarmann.
Leading the way to a lone, blighted tree on his farm, he says, “It’s good to have EFB on the property. Good to know the plants are disease resistant.” If the tree is telling him something, he’s not pushing his luck; it will be removed soon.
Hazelnut trees have an interesting relationship with another fungus that may help boost the nut farmer’s potential profits, not wipe them out. “Truffles, subterranean black golf balls, grow on hazelnuts,” says Haarmann, who dreams of the day when he can create a “microhabitat” for the delicacy to grow. “Truffles like a different type of soil, a sweeter soil, with a higher pH,” he says. “But I’d like to grow truffles along with hazelnuts.”
In addition to the Yamhill and Dorris orchard, Haarmann is running a field trial of 100 hazelnut trees for Rutgers University. Those nuts don’t have names yet, only a numerical designation, such as (CRXR)4P433209. “Rutgers is 10 years late in the game,” says Haarmann.
Dr. Thomas Molnar, a plant biologist with the Department of Plant Biology and Pathology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, is doing his best to catch up. He is crossbreeding in an effort to fight the dreaded EFB. If CRXR4P433209 can produce disease‐resistant crops on the East Coast, Rutgers may give Oregon a run for its money.
“This is what [the chocolatier] Ferrero Rocher wants,” says Haarmann as he pulls a plump, brown nut from its husk on an older “Jefferson” cultivar. “They’re looking for uniformity of product.”
There aren’t enough hazelnuts in the world to fulfill the confectioner’s needs. Nutella, Ferrero’s chocolate and hazelnut spread, gets more popular every year. If all goes according to plan, Haarmann will sell his hazelnuts “in‐shell” in about five years.
“This is my own trial,” he says. “I’m building off of someone else’s work. Picking up and moving forward.”