Growing Nuts in Canton, Minnesota
To most people, the term “woody agriculture” is an unfamiliar concept. Woody agriculture refers to the growing of domesticated woody perennial crops such as in the accompanying image of a hazelnut plant on Badgersett Research Farm. The nuts can be harvested annually as a staple commercial foodproduct.
Domesticated plants and trees characteristic of woody agriculture differ from wild plants through years of selective breeding. The breeding work has resulted in dependable plants with consistent, high volume production.
Phil Rutter, owner and chief researcher at Badgersett Research Farm, began the first plantings on his woody agriculture farm over 20 years ago. Badgersett’s 160 acres are utilized in the growing of hazelnuts and chestnuts for purposes of commercial food production, biomass, and direct sale to market. Through research and experimentation, Rutter has developed successful crops of hybrid hazelnuts and chestnuts.
Unlike conventional row crops, the hazelnut and chestnut plants are planted only once. They offer many attributes to support sustainable agriculture. Seeds are harvested annually and wood is harvested every 5-10 years as biomass fuel. Within one year of harvesting the wood, the plants will regenerate from the roots, once again producing seeds.
Because the soil is tilled only once, there is little erosion and less work energy involved – a positive when considering the southeast Minnesota hilly and rolling terrain that often creates serious erosion problems with row cropping. The woody plants are also drought resistant as well as flood tolerant.They capture three times more solar energy than annual plants and this directly effects the amount of seed and wood produced.
From a business perspective, a market for raw nuts is already established. Most nut production of hazels and chestnuts occurs outside of the United States, with the nation reliant on imported nuts. The oil from hazels – its oil can be used much like soybean oil – is a secondary market opportunity. Chestnuts are carbohydrate-based similar to flour or maize and provide an excellent food source. In its own fashion, hazelnuts are a luxury food. The supply from wild trees has never come close to satisfying market demand.
The Badgersett initiative has utilized a University of Minnesota graduate research assistant from the Department of Applied Economics and is launching its business plan development through a past associate of the University’s Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management and the coordinator of the University’s Community Assistantship Program. The next stage for this enterprise is to design a business plan driven by the commercialization opportunity.