PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – In the days leading up to Valentine’s Day 2021, Loren Birkemeier, a Canby hazelnut grower and farm owner and operator, said he was expecting a bit of an ice storm. What he wasn’t expecting was his grove to be completely flattened.
He said usually when he looks out the window of his house toward the orchard he sees a wall of trees. The morning the ice storm hit, he could see his neighbor’s house and mailboxes.
“My 20-year-old Yamhill orchard was about six feet tall and it should be 16 feet tall,” he said, describing the damage to his Yamhill-variety hazelnut trees. “They were bowed all the way to the ground with an enormous ice load, many of them splitting and breaking.”
Those were his older trees. He said the worst damage he saw were in his younger orchards, where the trees were between five and nine years old. He said some trees were split down the middle, almost resembling a peeled banana.
As the ice started to thaw, some trees surprised him and righted their branches, breathing a sigh of relief as the extra weight dripped away. Others left a mess behind.
Birkemeier said clearing the debris was an ongoing process throughout the next year. He said he and the farm’s other employees have made at least four trips through the orchard with chainsaws, trying to get rid of the broken and damaged wood, rehabbing trees that might survive, and pulling out the stumps of trees that were a total loss.
It’s been a lot of work, but Birkemeier said his family farm is recovering well. Hazelnut trees are very resilient, he said, and can often recover quickly. When a branch is pruned or broken, the tree responds by growing a new one. As long as a tree didn’t have catastrophic damage to its trunk, it seemed to rebound fairly well in the growing season, he said.
Birkemeier Farms lost about 38% of its hazelnut tree canopy. Birkemeier said he expected that would result in a 38% loss in the farm’s nut yield, but that wasn’t the case. The yield was down, but not as significantly as he expected. He thinks the reduced canopy may have allowed more sunlight to reach branches that weren’t previously exposed to as much light, resulting in more nuts.
In fact, despite the extreme damage some Willamette Valley hazelnut farms sustained, the state still had a record crop in 2021, according to Nik Wiman, an orchard specialist with Oregon State University and lead extension faculty for the hazelnut industry.
Wiman said for several years leading up to the ice storm, seed crop farmers had been transitioning to farming hazelnuts. Their orchards are now reaching maturity and their nuts contributed greatly in 2021.
Oregon State University says 99% of the country’s hazelnuts are produced in the Willamette Valley and the nuts are often shipped overseas and are used in products like Ferrero Rocher chocolates.
If Oregon didn’t supply its usual yield, the effects could have been felt around the world.
Wiman said he often responds to orchards with problems and about a week and a half after the ice storm, he started going on tour to assess the damage.
Like Birkemeier, he saw trees peeled like bananas and older trees toppled over. He said he saw severe damage to older, historic acreage. He said older trees are susceptible to eatern filbert blight, a fungal disease that weakens trees’ branches considerably. He thought the newer varieties, which were developed by Oregon State University, seemed to survive the storm better. These varieties are genetically engineered to be resistant to the disease.
Wiman said he came across some farms where entire fields had to be replanted.
“When you’re a grower and you’re depending on income from those trees. It’s difficult to, you know, pull those out and start again, because hazelnuts mature very slowly,” he said.
It will be several years before the newly planted trees are producing nuts. He said some orchards definitely lost income in 2021.
While the hardiness of the hazelnut tree was a blessing for some farmers, it was a curse for others. At a round table discussion with Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., in December, Ryan Flaherty, growers relations manager of Hazelnut Growers of Oregon, explained that some farmers were having a difficult time receiving reimbursement for their damaged crops. The way the Tree Assistance Program rules are currently written, orchardists can only receive federal reimbursement if they’ve suffered more than 15% tree mortality.
Since many trees were damaged but continued to grow, several farmers were not eligible to receive this assistance.
“It’s never clear when a hazelnut tree is dead, because even if it splits to the ground, in many cases, it will still produce suckers. So, a tree could be replaced from a sucker a new shoe that comes up from the roots,” Wiman explained.
Birkemeier said his family did file for assistance through the Farm Service Agency.
Now, as most farmers are putting the ice storm behind them, they’re faced with new challenges: supply chain issues and the cost of fertilizer.
Wiman said production costs have gone through the roof and prices for nutrients in 2022 have tripled. He expects a lot of farmers will be cutting back on what they provide to their trees. He said this puts a lot of pressure on growers to set the price of their nuts high enough to cover the cost of production.
Birkemeire said as prices rise, the price of his commodity will rise. But eventually, that might catch up with him and Oregon’s other hazelnut farmers.
“It starts to get a little scary as our customer base no longer buys Nutella because things are getting expensive. So, it’s something we all are aware of,” he said.
As far as the cost of fertilizer goes, Birkemeier said the ice storm has taught him to go back to the basics when it comes to fertilizing. He believes supplemental fertilizers might have been the reason some farms were hit so hard. He believes if trees grow too quickly, they might not be as strong as trees that were left to grow at a more natural rate.
Birkemeier said he’s looking forward to what the 2022 season might bring. He thinks the new growth that sprouted after the 2021 storm could pay off with a large return, now that the trees have had more time to heal.
He doesn’t plan on getting out of the business any time soon and said even with the ice storm and heat dome in 2021, he’d still recommend more farmers join the industry.
“We’re farmers, we’re in it for money, but really, we’re all just stewards of what we have. If you don’t take care of what you have, it won’t pay you into the future and it’s not going to be something that kids are going to get to do,” he said.