TORONTO—Ontario farmers are stepping in to feed Canadians’ appetite for hazelnuts as the industry deals with a worldwide shortage, sky-high prices and the spread of nut-killing blight in British Columbia.
The Ontario Hazelnut Association says farmers will harvest more than 240 hectares of the crop this year, up from 40 hectares last year.
British Columbia, which had 330 hectares of hazelnut-producing orchards as recently as 2012, saw its harvest fall by more than 60 per cent last year and 2015 promises to be even worse.
Linda Grimo, whose family has been growing hazelnuts in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., since 1972, said that gives Ontario growers a “huge opportunity” in the market.
“I call it untapped potential,” she said. “The demand is so great and the supply is so low.”
Two years of poor harvests in Turkey, which produces more than two-thirds of the world’s hazelnuts, and the spread of Eastern Filbert Blight across British Columbia and Oregon, a disease that kills hazelnut trees in less than a decade if left untreated, have caused global hazelnut prices to triple since the first months of last year.
“Every day is a new record high,” said Adam Johnston, a trader with UK-based Freeworld Trading.
Buyers such as Ferrero SpA, which uses the nut in its Ferrero Rocher chocolates and Nutella spread, will “pay any price” for the necessary ingredient in their products, Johnston said.
Ferrero has signed a long-term deal with the Ontario Hazelnut Association to create hazelnut crops to feed the Brantford, Ont., manufacturing plant it opened in 2006.
Grimo said Ontario farmers have been dealing with the disease for years, so producers have planted hybrid hazelnut trees that combine the best aspects of high-yield yet vulnerable European trees with low-yield and blight-resistant native North American species.
The Ontario government is supporting research into hybrid hazelnuts, giving $1.3 million to support research and testing of new strains at the University of Guelph.
Grimo said west coast farmers in British Columbia and Oregon focused on hazelnut strains that gave the best yields because Eastern Filbert Blight was not widespread west of the Rocky Mountains until recently.
Canadian Hazelnut Inc., one of the largest producers in British Columbia, pulled its entire crop of 8,000 trees out of the ground earlier this year because of the blight, according to manager Shelley Krahn.
The farm is testing out new hybrids, she said, but going from a blight-resistant seedling to a full hazelnut-producing orchard can take more than five years.
“We knew that it was coming,” she said. “I don’t think that how fast it spread over the past three years was fathomed. We did the best that we could.”
The B.C. Hazelnut Growers Association has asked the provincial government for $1.2 million to help rebuild the hazelnut crop and plant new blight-resistant trees, and a government spokesman said the province will review the request in the coming weeks.