When most people picture the Midwest, they conjure images of corn and soy as far as the eye can see. But before there were farms, there were forests, and before there were plows, there were prairies! Forests, prairies, and the beautiful, vastly diverse transition zone between them: the oak savanna.
Some of the most nutritious and delicious foods come from this ecosystem. They have sustained people and animals alike for centuries while improving – not degrading – the health of our soil and waterways. The American hazelnut (Corylus americana) is one such superfood.
We have hazelnuts in the Midwest?!
You betcha. But the hazelnuts growing here are distinct from the European hazelnuts that find their way into Nutella and other commercial outlets. Midwest-grown hazelnuts are smaller, sweeter, and bursting with flavor. Our foodie hearts are eager to share the pleasure of a freshly roasted kernel with you as much as our environmentalist hearts are eager to restore the land with the deep-rooted bushes they grow on.
Given the delicious flavor, nutritional value, and countless ecosystem services provided by the American hazelnut, it seems like a no-brainer to build an industry around it, but turning a wild plant into a commercially viable crop takes work – about a century of it, in this case.
Back in the early 1900s, plant breeders started to cross the American hazelnut with its European counterpart, seeking a crop with the winter hardiness and blight resistance of the former and the larger size and consistent yield of the latter. With help from university researchers eager to promote climate-friendly Midwest crops, the seedlings slowly improved. Word about hazelnuts spread between networks of eco-conscious farmers, and by the early 2000s, there were enough hazelnut growers and enthusiasts to start thinking about an industry. The Upper Midwest Hazelnut Development Initiative formed in 2007 and started hosting conferences to bring growers together.
At the 2010 hazelnut conference, growers and researchers started talking about what it would take to build a Midwest hazelnut industry. We had a vision for a grower-owned business that would aggregate hazelnuts from small farms around the Upper Midwest and turn them into delicious products. We saw this company as an opportunity to transform the Midwestern landscape – fighting climate change on a meaningful scale while building local food systems and introducing the world to these incredible nuts. Thus, in 2014, the American Hazelnut Company was born.
So much has happened since then. Our line of products has expanded from the original hazelnut oil and roasted nuts to include hazelnut flour and a flavored snack called HazelSnackers. Our membership has about doubled, and we continue to speak to new growers planting hazels. With support from grants and university extension programs, we built a processing line that efficiently shells, sorts, and sanitizes nuts. Amazing local chefs have introduced the world to delicious new hazelnut recipes, and our growing customer base continues to support us in their kitchens. We are so grateful to all of these people who share our vision for a Midwest hazelnut industry. Thank you for joining us.