By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

A 20-acre hazelnut orchard along the west side of Keizer Rapids Parks has seen its last harvest.

Volunteers were expected to begin knocking down the trees with donated equipment as soon as Saturday, Jan. 13.

“It’s reached the end of it’s useful life,” said Bill Lawyer, Keizer Public Works director. “The lease on the property ended in November and the yield was so low that it was going to be, at best, a break-even deal for the farmer in the future.”

The orchard has had a turbulent few years leading up to its demise. The farmer who leased the property from the city for five years in 2012 asked for release from it in 2015 as plans for The Big Toy came to fruition. He cited the potential health and legal pitfalls of using pesticides next to a children’s play area as the primary reason for pulling out of the deal.

That same year, another farmer, Kevin Schurter approached the city with a proposal to take over the care and harvesting using only glyphosphate (Roundup) on the ground. Schurter’s lease ended in November 2017 and he opted not to renew it.

Lawyer said the reduced use of pesticides probably hastened the aging of the trees.

Longtime Keizer volunteers Mark Caillier, Jerry Nuttbrock and Randy Miller are leading the effort to remove the trees and make way for a different crop. The ground will also be raked to remove as many of the roots as possible.

Caillier said estimates on the number of trees has varied, but it’s somewhere between 1,800 and 2,000.

“It only takes about 30 seconds to knock one over. Many of the centers have rotted at this point and they will just snap,” Caillier said.

The trees were planted in 1928 and 1929 with an expected life of 60 years at most, they are approaching 90 years now.

The trees will be placed in piles and burned as far away from The Big Toy, trails and roads as possible, which is allowed under Oregon statues because the land is zoned for agriculture and will stay agricultural even after the trees are gone.

“We couldn’t do that with The Big Toy because the land use was changing, but this is allowed and we’ve already notified the (Keizer) Fire District to make sure we don’t alarm anyone,” Lawyer said.

Safety officers will be on-hand during the initial excavation to direct the flow of park visitors around work areas and explain what is happening.

Caillier said that after the initial knock-down and raking, volunteer crews will still need to go over the land by hand and pick up debris left behind.

“To get it ready for farming by July 1, we can’t have anything bigger than a half-inch around and 12 inches long so it is going to be a process,” Caillier said.

Once the acreage is cleared, the city plans to put out a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a new farmer to tend the land. Lawyer isn’t precisely certain what the new crop would be but expected something like grass seed or fescue.

“If we can find someone to farm the area, it saves us the manpower to maintain it,” Lawyer said. “We would like to generate as much revenue as possible.”

One local farmer has already expressed interest, but bidding will have to go through the RFP process.

Lawyer doesn’t expect the fields to be ready in time for spring planting, but a fall and/or winter planting isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

Eventually, the land will become a developed area of Keizer Rapids Park. The current master plan calls for sports fields in the area.