Go (Hazel) Nuts!
By Dani Lind | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
I’ve been writing this regular Cooking Fresh column for Edible Madison since the magazine’s inception in 2010. Being a long-time vegetable gardener and buyer of local produce (not to mention being married to a vegetable farmer for 12 years), I tend to focus on vegetables. Past winter edition articles included celery root, winter radishes, turnips, winter hoop-house spinach, mushrooms, black garlic, and potatoes. Not only am I running out of local winter vegetables that I actually want to write about, but I was thinking that it’s time to write about another kind of local food entirely—nuts!
There are wild nuts like black walnuts and hickory nuts that are super special but also somewhat difficult to source. The Amish community around Viroqua can be a good resource for them, and I’ve bought them at the Dane County Farmers’ Market from Bob and Audrey Biersach of Hickory Heaven. For a brief period in the fall, our area food co-ops sometimes carry local chestnuts. These local nuts are all great, but they’re not something you can just go to the store and buy. Midwest grown hazelnuts, however, are promising—someday soon— to be an easier nut to crack.
This is because hazelnut production is causing a small but growing change in the Midwest agriculture scene, one that cultivates environmental sustainability in the form of soil stabilization and carbon sequestration (storage of carbon from the air in the soil), local food independence and biodiversity while creating new local products that are healthy, versatile and delicious.
While the California almond industry is criticized for its excessive water consumption in a drought-ridden state and exposure of a large percentage of America’s honeybees to pesticides, Midwest hazelnut production is lauded as a miraculous green alternative to the annual corn and soybean monoculture that dominates our Wisconsin fields. As a longlived perennial that requires no tillage, develops a massive root structure, and provides a leafy canopy for the whole growing season, hazelnuts by nature sequester a lot more carbon in the soil than annual crops. For the same reasons, they prevent nitrogen leaching and soil erosion, too. Once established, hazelnuts require very little water or fertility inputs, and they can grow on marginal land that annual crops cannot. Hazelnuts are perfect for integrating into a multi-species “silvopasture” system, where pasture is planted with trees and other perennial crops and where a diversity of livestock grazes under and between the rows.
Sustainable hazelnut production has many passionate advocates researching, growing, educating and marketing hazelnuts here in southern Wisconsin. When I moved to the Driftless region in 2001, the first person who turned me on to local hazelnuts was Mark Shepard, a world-renowned professional permaculture and agroforestry designer and educator who lectures about hazelnuts and their role in regenerative agriculture (and talks landowners like me into planting hedgerows of hazelnuts!). Shepard and his family founded New Forest Farm, a 110-acre “restoration agriculture” research farm outside of Viola, Wisconsin, in 1994. Land that was characterized by degraded corn fields is now an oasis of perennial polyculture, with hazelnuts at the helm, but also chestnuts, walnuts, elderberries and apples interspersed with fungi, annual and perennial vegetables, and perennial vines, brambles, and grasses that are grazed by all sorts of farm animals. Mark also founded Forest Agriculture Nursery, which breeds and sells cold-hardy native and hybrid nut and fruit seedlings for agricultural production. Their hybrid hazelnut seedlings, crosses between European and American hazelnut varieties, have been painstakingly selected for cold hardiness, disease resistance and agricultural potential.
Hazelnuts! Get the recipes:
Complementing Mark’s work, a group of hazelnut aficionados from the University of Wisconsin Extension service and the University of Minnesota created the Upper Midwest Hazelnut Development Initiative (UMHDI) in 2009. The organization’s researchers seek to expand the Midwest’s hazelnut industry through education, research, selective breeding, and collaborating with growers on technology and best practices.
All this buzz about hazelnuts being a panacea to the Midwest’s broken agriculture system is for naught without a market for processing and distributing their product. At a spring 2014 UMHDI conference in Gays Mills, Wisconsin, several hazelnut growers and researchers had the idea to start a grower-owned, value-added processing and marketing business, establishing the American Hazelnut Company (AHC) later that year. Comprised of more than 20 grower-members ranging from hobby-growers to larger-scale commercial farms, AHC provides shared harvesting, processing and packaging equipment as well as marketing, sales and distribution services intended to expand the market for grower-owners’ harvest as they increase production. In their own words, “We are growing hazelnuts, but we are also helping change the way we farm in the upper Midwest. Instead of miles of monocropping, we envision perennial polycultures of woody plants modeled after the oak savannah ecosystem that once thrived in the upper Midwest. Great food, clean water, healthy soil. That’s what we stand for.”
My friend Brad Niemcek is the general manager of the American Hazelnut Company along with being one of the founding growermembers. He’s also the director of the Kickapoo Culinary Center in Gays Mills, Wisconsin, where American Hazelnut Company’s hazelnuts are processed. His role is to take growers’ nuts, turn them into a marketable product and sell them to customers. Hazelnuts that were shelled at their sister facility in Ashland, Wisconsin, are brought to Gays Mills and ground and pressed into cold-pressed, unfiltered oil. The byproduct of the oil extraction is hazelnut meal, which AHC packages and markets as a great alternative to almond flour/meal. They also package whole hazelnuts for retail sale. As a caterer and home cook, I love all three of American Hazelnut Company’s products, but Brad says their hazelnut oil is the biggest seller by far.
Advocates of hazelnut production also laud the nut’s nutritive qualities: high protein and healthy fats, which are great for humans as well as for animal feed and biofuel. Besides all this save-theworld, sustainable agriculture and health stuff, Midwest-grown hazelnuts are just plain delicious. We Americans may not have learned to love them as much as Europeans…yet (Europeans eat about a cup of hazelnuts a week, whereas the average American eats two nuts per year), but try them and you will.
The American and American-European hybrid hazelnuts that Midwest growers cultivate are smaller but more intensely flavored than the big fat hazelnuts we get from the rest of the world, and their culinary potential goes way beyond Nutella (the production of which uses 40 percent of the world’s hazelnut supply). As AHC has noted, they have potential to be a more sustainable alternative to almonds and almond meal/flour for gluten-free recipes.
Midwest hazelnuts are delicious in sweets. There are dozens of recipes online to make your own super delicious (and actually healthy) chocolate hazelnut spread, praline, cakes, pies, cookies, granola, trail mix and hazelnut milk. I also love hazelnuts and hazelnut oil in savory applications: salad toppings, vinaigrette, breading for fish or goat cheese, homemade crackers, and dukkah, a miraculous nut-spice mix for topping all sorts of things. Hazelnut meal makes a wonderful gluten-free flour for use in tortes, cakes, breads, muffins and crackers.
Go nuts and be the change. Seek out some local hazelnuts at one of the places mentioned in the sidebar. If you’re a landowner, think about ordering some hybrid hazelnut seedlings from Forest Agriculture Nursery. Or make a tax-deductible donation to the UMHDI. All these actions will help this burgeoning sustainable agriculture industry and make delicious local hazelnuts more available to us all in the future!