Original post in Mother Earth News
Reader Contribution By Steven McFadden
Editor’s Note: As Hazelnut growers and processors in the Pacific Northwest, we are happy to see the recognition of the hazel tree for its positive impact on our land and environment. It’s in this spirit that we highlight this reader contribution to Mother Earth News and take note of the Upper Midwest Hazelnut Development Initiative efforts to plant more hazel trees in their region.
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Imagine the vast GMO-glyphosate soybean fields of America’s Heartland transformed into a perennial forest with swarms of hazelnut trees, deeply-rooted and thick as lilac bushes, fourteen feet tall, and laden heavy with oil-rich nuts that have a 101 uses.
Imagine the annual harvest of hazelnuts fulfilling a cornucopia of needs: for animal feed, for cooking oil, for fuel, for human food – and for many of the purposes and functions now fulfilled by soy.
How different the landscape. How changed the land itself, and all the creatures which share life upon the land. How profoundly different the environmental impact.
Chris Gamer of Minnesota and his allied visionaries have imagined all that. And after having imagined it, they’ve set about working to make the vision real via The Million Hazelnut Campaign, with a broad circle of partners: The Main Street Project, the Sustainable Farming Association, the Upper Midwest Hazelnut Development Initiative, Forest Agriculture Nursery, and the Izaak Walton Leagues’ Upper Mississippi River Initiative. Through the campaign, they are spreading a message about the manifold benefits of the hazelnut, benefits they see as acutely relevant in our era of profound climate upheaval.
Reforest the Midwest with Perennial Agriculture
“The goal of the Million Hazelnut Campaign is to reforest the Midwest with perennial agriculture,” Gamer told me in a phone interview. “Our campaign is an initiative to expand our capacity to respond to climate change, and to continue meeting the food and fuel needs of our society.”
“The soil erosion, carbon outgassing, and water contamination caused by conventional farming practices in the Midwest has to stop,” the campaign states.
Gamer, spokesperson and administrator for the campaign, said that hazelnut plantings combat erosion, and that they help purify and protect water. “They clean our water by uptaking nutrients (also nitrogen and phosphorus) that might otherwise run off into waterways,” he explained, “and they can help restore our aquifers through increased water infiltration. Hazelnut bushes give us refuge, refreshment, shade, and shelter.”
The hazelnut is the nut of the hazel (Corylus americana), a small tree of the birch family justly renowned for its medicinal and nutritional capacities. The nuts are a multi-use crop, noted for their satisfying texture, and their rich, earthy flavor. Beyond the commercial scale of cultivation, hazelnut trees can work nicely as part of a home garden. Gardeners are rewarded not just with nuts, but also with the hazelnut’s blazing fall colors.
There’s a Lot of Interesting Things Happening
According to Gamer’s vision, the Million Hazelnut Campaign, if implemented to scale, can help improve the Upper Mississippi watershed that provides drinking water for millions of people, can help decrease the vast toxic dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, and can help establish habitat for a diverse variety of native plants and animals.
Hazelnuts are a perennial crop with 12-foot deep roots, roots which not only hold the soil, but also allow water infiltration for restoring aquifers. That makes it both flood and drought tolerant.
This spring of 2019 in particular, as blizzards and a bomb cyclone have unleashed historic flooding across the Midwest, hazelnuts on stream banks, in hedgerows, and in fields might have made a helpful difference. Their deep roots may have helped to stabilize some landscapes, and to conserve some of the staggering volumes of productive topsoil that was washed away in this climate calamity.
A solar energy systems designer and installer, Gamer told me had recently returned from a conference in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, sponsored by the Upper Midwest Hazelnut Development Initiative, a project affiliated with the University of Wisconsin. He learned a great deal by participating. “There’s lots of interesting things happening,” he said. “Big Ag is interested in hazelnuts, and they are doing cloning. They are looking to be active. Behind them, you should note, are large investors who are looking at the prospect of dominating the hazelnut industry.”
Gamer said that the cloning approach to hazelnut trees is a concern for him. Clones have only the limited genetic history of the plant from which they have been cloned, and are not adapting in real time. But hazelnuts grown from seed have all of the history of that tree and its ancestors though all its genetic lineage back to the beginning, and do also adapt as change is ongoing. So those trees will be more resilient as we face the consequences of climate change.“Where I’m at, the scale that I and others are working on,” Gamer told me, “is to propagate from seeds, and from a diversity of growers. We do breeding along the pathways pioneered by Luther Burbank, using selective breeding to increase nut size, volume, and quality.
Right now the campaign is seeking to partner with landowners to host plantings of hazelnut trees, and to begin the more active commercialization of hazelnuts grown in the Midwest as a commodity for the global market.
“The critical thing is connecting with the citizens,” Gamer told me. “We need help getting people planting sustainable, perennial crops like the hazelnut. It absolutely needs community involvement.” To help raise that community involvement, Gamer is planning a summer tour of the 12 midwestern states to promote The Million Hazelnut Campaign. If you are interested, you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Independent journalist Steven McFadden has from time to time experienced the thrill of breathing the sparkling, living airs that course through the meadows of great mountains. Otherwise he’s hard at work, rooted in agrarian cyberspace at DeepAgroecology.net. His wider work, and all of his nonfiction books, are at Chiron Communications.