There have been concerns expressed about how long the filbert trees in the Keizer Rapids Park orchard will last, but one farmer is willing to try farming them. (KEIZERTIMES file/Craig Murphy)

There have been concerns expressed about how long the filbert trees in the Keizer Rapids Park orchard will last, but one farmer is willing to try farming them. (KEIZERTIMES file/Craig Murphy)

By CRAIG MURPHY
Of the Keizertimes

Maybe those hazelnut trees won’t be lonely and decaying after all.

In a somewhat surprising twist, a farmer stepped up last month with an offer to farm the 22 acres of filbert orchards on city-owned property at Keizer Rapids Park. In June, Tony Weathers was granted a release from his contract with the city to do the harvesting. Weathers cited possible litigation for using pesticides as the reason for wanting out of the contract.

At the time, it was believed no other farmers would be willing to step in due to the same litigation concerns.

However, Kevin Schurter with Schurter Enterprises LLC submitted a proposal on July 14 to Bill Lawyer, Public Works director to Keizer, to harvest the orchards.

Of note, Schurter is proposing to not use pesticides or other chemicals. He has only requested the ability the use glyphosphate (RoundUp) on the ground underneath trees to keep weeds controlled.

The issue was discussed during a Keizer City Council executive session Monday evening. Later during the regular meeting, councilors unanimously approved a motion to give city manager Chris Eppley the authority to enter into a one-season contract with Schurter, with the idea that formal Request for Proposals will be done for next year.

In his proposal, Schurter mentioned using “mechanical means” for upkeep of the trees and the ground under the trees.

“Mechanical means would entail mowing, trimming, leveling, etc. with tractors and implements. This would create dust, and noise, but there is no chemicals involved,” he wrote.

Schurter wrote that RoundUp would be used “very sparingly” and signs would be posted near the Big Toy (located within the orchard and the reason for the pesticide concern), the KRP entrance and other places as needed.

“Work on the trees and grounds would be attempted when a limited amount of visitors were at the park and curtailed when special events are going on,” he wrote.

As have others, Schurter noted the poor health of the trees. City officials and others have estimated blight means the trees will only last a few more years before having to be cut down.

“Because of the poor health of the trees, Schurter Enterprises LLC will not be liable for the death of the trees,” Schurter wrote. “The non-use of chemicals will speed up the death of the trees, but it is hard to say exactly how long they will last. Hazelnut trees of that variety and age suffer from Eastern Filbert Blight, and spraying and pruning is the only effective way to combat it. Pruning will hold it at bay, but they will eventually succumb.”

In the past, Weathers was paying the city $9,000 a year in rent and keeping all proceeds. Schurter’s proposal calls for 15 percent of net profits from the farming of the hazelnuts to be given to the city as rent.

City Attorney Shannon Johnson emphasized during Monday’s meeting Schurter’s proposal was not solicited.

“Staff is concerned no one is maintaining the trees,” Johnson said. “It can be a big expense to keep the weeds down and snagged trees. Council would have to act tonight to get maintenance done and crops for this season.”

Figuring out what to do with the trees has been a question brought up recently, including at last month’s Keizer Parks and Recreation Advisory Board meeting (see related story, page A9).

While there is the potential financial windfall for all involved, mayor Cathy Clark noted after Monday’s meeting that’s not the main benefit.

“It appears this is a chance to be responsible for a city asset,” Clark said, noting a desire to have Schurter – and any future farmer – take down dead trees during the lease. “This is more sustainable without having to do the spraying.”

Clark and Lawyer both expressed surprise at someone stepping forward to resume hazelnut farming.

“It did seem like it was done,” Clark said.

Lawyer said the international demand for hazelnuts makes the orchard attractive.

“That’s more of a factor for the farmer,” Lawyer said. “If the price (of the crop) was on the way down, I’m not sure he’d be talking to us.”

Clark feels all will benefit.

“It’s a win-win for everyone,” the mayor said. “It helps us care for our resources. He believes he can do this in a sustainable way without spraying the orchard.”

Schurter told the Keizertimes on Tuesday he doesn’t know how much longer the trees will survive.

“The idea is to farm it not using pesticides,” he said. “I’m not saying they are bad, but this is a way to alleviate the concern. As far as the trees, this will affect them in a bad way. They will end up dying a lot quicker than if we could control the blight. It’s something you have to work around.

“They’re already dying,” Schurter added. “They will continue to die. I expect them to die at a quicker rate than if we could spray. At orchards with newer trees, you don’t have to spray those. But with an old variety like that, they are going to die eventually. I can understand the concerns people have.”

Schurter, who noted the harvesting would be done in the fall – his proposal calls for the contract to run through Nov. 30 – learned about the issue by reading the story in this paper about Weathers getting out of his contract.

“I thought it would be a shame that the crop would fall and rot on the ground,” he said. “I figured it’s not a bad idea to at least harvest it and farm it. Even if (the trees) are going to die, at least you can get something out of it. The city benefits with a percentage of the sales and, even more, it will look good. The orchards will be mowed and dead trees will be cut out.”

No timeline was given for when a contract would be signed.