The hazelnut orchard at Keizer Rapids Park will be harvested again soon, but this time chemicals won't be used. (Craig Murphy/ KEIZERTIMES file photo)

The hazelnut orchard at Keizer Rapids Park will be harvested again soon, but this time chemicals won’t be used. (Craig Murphy/ KEIZERTIMES file photo)

By CRAIG MURPHY
Of the Keizertimes

Can hazelnuts in the orchard at Keizer Rapids Park be grown without chemicals?

According to the executive director of the Oregon Hazelnut Growers Association, the answer is yes.

“There are growers farming hazelnuts organically,” Michael Klein told the Keizertimes. “It is not an easy endeavor but it can be done. It requires a lot of extra work, expense and may use chemical sprays approved for organic certification.”

As mentioned last week in the Keizertimes, Kevin Schurter with Schurter Enterprises LLC submitted a proposal in July to farm the 22 acres of filbert orchards on city-owned property at KRP. Tony Weathers had done the harvesting previously, but cited possible litigation for using pesticides in the vicinity of the Big Toy – built within the orchards in June – as the reason for wanting out of his contract.

Weathers was paying the city $9,000 a year in rent. Schurter has proposed paying no rent but giving 15 percent of his proceeds to the city instead. The Keizer City Council last week voted to allow City Manager Chris Eppley to strike a deal.

“The council authorized Chris to proceed without further council action and the lease will likely be signed very soon,” city attorney Shannon Johnson said Aug. 6. “Orchard work could begin very soon.”

The health of the trees has been a concern for years, with most projections being less than 10 years before all of the trees will have to be taken down.

“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,” Schurter wrote in his proposal. “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.”

Klein said trees with heavy blight infection will indeed continue to deteriorate.

“There’s little that can be done if that’s the case without severe pruning and repeated sprays in coming years,” he said.

Klein noted the issue is common.

“There are no plans to initiate research on untreated orchards as there have been hundreds of others seen in the last 20-plus years suffering the same fate. Everyone in the industry is aware of what will occur over time,” he said.

It’s been mentioned several times recently a lower hazelnut crop than usual, particularly due to issues in Turkey, means hazelnuts from KRP could command a higher price.

Klein confirmed the shortage, but stopped short of guaranteeing financial success.

“There has been a shortage of hazelnuts of late leading to increased demand and price,” Klein said. “A deteriorating orchard may not produce a yield sufficient to turn a profit even with the past season’s high prices. There’s a good possibility that supply issues may correct themselves as soon as this fall.”

Klein noted the hazelnut harvest season is short.

“Harvest in an orchard of this size is usually done one time, late in the season when all the nuts are down,” he said. “If the orchard gives access to the public it complicates an already hazardous activity. The harvest season is late September through October. If you can get someone to manage and harvest through the decline of the trees that’s great. It may be tough going forward as the costs could exceed the potential return plus the risks.”