I’m a failed hazelnut farmer.

Then again, so is every other farmer who has tried to grow hazelnuts in New Jersey. In fact, almost nobody east of the Rockies can raise a successful crop of hazelnuts.

It simply can’t be done on a commercial scale, due to a fungal disease that runs rampant.

That’s about to change, thanks to innovative research. Even more improvements could be on the way, too, and not just for hazelnuts—if only we embrace the technologies that promise to make it possible.

Most people love the taste of hazelnuts. I sure do, especially at Christmastime, when it’s traditional in Italian-American families like mine to set them out in bowls of mixed nuts.

So about four years ago, I bought a few hazelnut trees. I’d never grown them on my farm, but I wasn’t searching for a new cash crop. I just thought I’d plant them and see what happened. Although I’m a farmer, this was closer to gardening than it was to farming.

The trees died. So I tried again the next year. Those trees died, too. Right up through this year, my hazelnut trees never have survived the summer.

You’ve probably heard the colloquial definition of insanity: trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Perhaps this rule applies to me and my dead hazelnut trees. Even so, I’m always experimenting. Throughout my life as a farmer, I’ve worked with researchers at Rutgers University, donating a portion of my land as well as my labor to help them develop new strains of crops. My father did the same.

The deaths of two or three hazelnut trees for a few years in a row didn’t strike me as anything more than a personal experiment that flopped. Some people say that success is born of failure, and I don’t let a handful of small failures bother me. I know that success may be around the corner, if only I try again.

Just recently, however, I learned about the source of my trouble: eastern blight disease, the fungus that kills most of the hazelnut trees in our area. I had not appreciated its aggression or pervasiveness. My hazelnut experiment was doomed to fail before it even had started.

Now scientists at Rutgers may have figured out how to beat the disease. Several years ago, biologists imported 5,000 hazelnut trees from around the world. They planted them on a research farm in New Jersey, helped them grow, and watched the results.

Today, most of these trees suffer from the killer blight. But 150 of them are disease free, suggesting that they carry a special resistance. Their seeds could give birth to a new variety of hazelnut tree that can thrive in New Jersey.

Hazelnuts represent an excellent economic opportunity. They’re booming in popularity, thanks in large part to the rise of Nutella, the spread that combines cocoa and hazelnuts.

Turkey currently produces about 70 percent of the world’s hazelnuts. The United States has only 5 percent of global sales, mostly from farmers in Oregon.

Because of the Rutgers innovation, farmers in New Jersey and other parts of the United States may be able to grab a larger share of this expanding market.

This is a triumph of traditional breeding. Unfortunately, this method is also slow. My neighbors and I in southern New Jersey have grown well over a hundred types of vegetables, but never in our lifetimes have we benefitted from a brand-new crop coming onto the scene. Hazelnut trees would be the first.

This shouldn’t be a once-in-a-lifetime event—at least not in our age, as we sit on the cusp of remarkable new gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR, which can speed up conventional approaches to breeding.

With traditional breeding, experiments take years, as we wait for crops to sprout, grow up, and release their own seeds.

Very soon, we’re going to have tools that allow us to push the fast-forward button. We’ll make rapid gains in our knowledge of plant science and our ability to overcome disease, weeds, and pests.

We’ll still have failures, but soon we may see hazelnut farms in New Jersey—and a lot of other successes as well.

 

*This first appeared Sept 27 at northjersey.com (part of the USA Today Network).