(Special Bonus: Meet a Founder of the Oregon Hazelnut Cooperative)
One idyllic spring day, with my nine-year-old son in tow, we headed out to My Brother’s Farm in Creswell, Oregon to learn about organic hazelnut production. What we experienced was so much more: a bustling first-generation family farm realizing a beautiful vision of land stewardship, sustainability, partnership, and farm-to-table ethos.
Hazelnuts are big business in the Willamette Valley, representing one of the most important agricultural commodities in the state, and providing 99% of the United States-grown hazelnut market. If you saw my blog post about hazelnuts, you’ll know that I’ve long been a fan of these tasty nuts, but as a supporter of organic agriculture, I was intrigued to learn that only 1% of the hazelnuts in Oregon are grown organically. I wanted to know why, and I wanted to meet some of the local farmers dedicated to changing that.
My Brother’s Farm
Upon arrival at My Brother’s Farm, we were welcomed by youngest brother (of three) Ben Larson, as well as an exuberant pack of farm dogs that encircled our car and happily followed along on the tour. The Chronicle recently did an extensive piece on the history of the family and the farm, so I won’t go into that much here, but it provides interesting background. In a nutshell, My Brother’s Farm is a first-generation family-run farm established in 2013, dedicated to stewarding 320 acres in the Southern Willamette Valley. The Larson “boys” – Taylor, Austin, and Ben – are gradually transitioning the land from grass seed production to a diverse orchard (hazelnuts and apples), ranch (bison and pork), and riparian forest.
The Organic Hazelnut Orchard
The hazelnut orchard was the first planting on the land, and upon visiting it was clear that they are very young trees. Ben told me the certified-organic trees, including five production varieties and three pollinizers, are just starting to produce. The family also leases a mature orchard down the road where they have harvested tens of thousands of pounds of hazelnuts since 2018. (As it turns out, they lease from the founder of the Oregon Organic Hazelnut Cooperative and one of the first organic farmers in the state, more on that important relationship below.) The young orchard is allowing the family to experiment with a variety of new techniques, including the “shake and catch” harvesting method, instead of the traditionally used sweeping method.
Stewardship, Sustainability, and Partnership
At My Brother’s Farm, the brothers are committed to stewarding and enhancing their 120 acres of native riparian forest, consisting primarily of oak, maple, ash, and cottonwood. In partnership with the Coast Fork Watershed Council, they have planted over 100,000 native trees and shrubs composed of 100 species on the land. They also strive to build soil health, improve biodiversity, enhance water quality, and restore native habitat. In the Willamette Valley, less than 3% of Oregon’s white oak habitat remains, primarily due to fire suppression, development, and conversion to agricultural land. For hazelnut growers, the stakes are even higher, because the dreaded hazelnut-filbertworm finds native oak acorns just as tasty as hazelnuts. Reestablishing the native species that have been lost is a step in the right direction.
Among the partners My Brother’s Farm has collaborated with are the University of Oregon, the Meyer Memorial Trust, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (USDA), the USDA Farm Services Agency, and the Coast Fork Watershed Council.
Additional Products at the Farm
In addition to the hazelnut orchard, the farm also tends bison, pork, and a small organic apple orchard.
If you ask Ben what his most important products are, second in line to hazelnuts are the head of 43 bison, which represent one of the only bison herds west of the Cascades. These terrific beasts, in addition to being tasty to some, are helping to transition the farm fields from annual grass seed production to no-spray perennial pasture.
Do free-range pigs have the potential to help combat the devastating hazelnut-filbertworm and expand organic hazelnut farming efforts? My Brother’s Farm, in partnership with the University of Oregon, embarked on a research study in 2018 to find out.
With the interest in sustainably grown, local pork products on the rise, raising various heritage pig breeds such as Berkshire made good business sense on the farm. But, as it turns out, the pigs may be doing even more to earn their keep. The study, which explored whether allowing the pigs to range and feast on fallen acorns and hazelnuts might help interrupt the lifecycle of their biggest pest, found: “…hogs were extremely effective at removing infested acorns while having an insignificant change in understory vegetation.”
The apple orchard is very young, with its first harvest expected in 2022, and includes mostly cider varieties with some eating apples mixed in. The brothers plan to dabble in hard cider production, so I’ll be sure to follow up on this!
After our walking tour, we stopped by the little farm stand for some of the wonderful pork products for my husband and son, as well as a vegan hazelnut pesto for the whole family. If you’re interested in products from the farm, they can often be found at Lane County Farmer’s Market, at a drop site in Springfield, or make an appointment for pickup at the farm. It was inspiring to visit this lovely family farm on the banks of the Coast Fork of the Willamette River, and I can’t wait to see what these forward-thinking brothers do with their land in the years ahead.
Paving the Way: Meet a Founder of the Oregon Hazelnut Cooperative
Shortly after visiting My Brother’s Farm, I had the privilege of meeting Linda Perrine, owner of Honor Earth Farm, the third commercial organic hazelnut orchard in Oregon, and co-founder of the Oregon Organic Hazelnut Cooperative (along with Taylor Larson and Joe & Cindy Lackner of Scio, OR). Before my visit, I did not realize that it was Linda’s mature orchard that was being leased to the Larson brothers, but was pleased to find out. Today, Linda has retired from commercial farming but produces veggies and berries for herself and her friends.
Linda shared that she had always wanted to farm, but with no family land to get started, she spent the earlier decades of her career working in a variety of jobs including for NASA and Adobe in the Silicon Valley. Yet, she was left with the gnawing feeling that she wasn’t “helping to solve the world problems,” and in her mid-40s she finally realized her dream of owning a farm. From 2008-2017, she ran her own 32-acre organic hazelnut orchard, and in 2017-2018 the Oregon Organic Hazelnut Cooperative was born.
The mission of the Oregon Organic Hazelnut Cooperative is “…to advance Oregon’s organic hazelnut industry by providing educational resources and marketing support to growers.” Linda said that the cooperative began from all of the farm tours, outreach, and education she did to help other growers learn about organic methods. (The eldest Larson brother, Taylor, is now president of the cooperative.)
Barriers to Organic Hazelnut Production
Thanks to Linda’s wealth of knowledge, I walked away with much greater detail on the primary barriers to organic hazelnut production, including:
- Education, according to Linda, is the main barrier. Oregon State University (OSU), the primary agricultural college in the state, does not offer training in organic horticultural production for hazelnuts.
- Organic fertilizers are significantly more expensive than their synthetic counterparts. (Often as much as 10x more expensive, according to Linda.)
- Certified treatments for Eastern Filbert Blight (EFB) can be very expensive. (Another method Linda has used, pruning, is labor-intensive.)
- Certified organic treatments for hazelnut-filbertworm are also very expensive. To illustrate, Linda shared that it costs $5,000 for one pass on her 32-acre orchard, and most conventional orchards would spray twice.
- Processing facilities for certified organic hazelnuts are very limited in the state. In the mid to Southern Willamette Valley, for example, only two processors are willing to do “custom processing.”
While the membership of the cooperative represents a small fraction of the hazelnut industry in Oregon (Linda estimates that less than 15 certified farms participate), their passion for transforming the industry is clear, and interest is growing. Linda noted the interest is especially strong among the younger farmers. Additionally, Oregon State University is interested in pursuing more research in organic hazelnut production. Things are looking bright.
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