We are Rob & Sally Hilles, owners of Hazelnut Hill.
How long has Hazelnut Hill been in business?
We started with a small existing orchard in 1985 in an area known as Franklin near Fern Ridge Reservoir by Eugene, Oregon. In the year 2000 we moved to a 225-acre property 12 miles south of Corvallis, Oregon and started from bare ground.
What's the "Hazelnut Hill Difference"?
Selection of hazelnut varieties that produce kernels suitable to the end product
Agricultural practices that eliminate pesticide use
Onsite drying, shelling and proper storage
Food processing with hands-on attention to detail
Direct selling through mail order
What makes our hazelnut varieties special?
Just as a fine painter wants a multitude of colors on their pallet, a talented musician a multitude of notes and better yet instruments. Making fine hazelnut products requires a wide selection of varietals. Each creation needs the variety that best suits that creation. The wine industry has known this for a long time, think about how many superior varietals they have developed. The Hazelnut industry has yet to find itself in this context. Nuts chosen for the inshell appearance and size were not chosen for how well they suit the end use food creation. For this reason, much remains to be discovered in the world of hazelnuts.
Do you have a food safety program?
Yes, we use Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) and Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOPs) as the minimum standard for our own Hazelnut Hill Safety Program.
What is the Hazelnut Hill Commitment?
To develop a full systems approach from propagation, nursery, orchard, harvest, drying, shelling, food procesing, retail and mail order.
To provide an educational experience for our visitors regarding this specialty crop of Oregon.
To make you want to come back for more and to share us with your friends and family by providing the highest quality hazelnuts at the lowest cost.
There is no greater compliment to what we are doing than hearing from you, "this is my favorite place and I love the taste!"
Questions or comments about Oregon hazelnuts or our Hazelnut Gift Store? Call us at 541-754-5657 or e-mail email@example.com
How Sally and I came to learn that all hazelnut varieties are not equal. In 1985 when I purchased my first hazelnut orchard there were few hazelnut varieties to choose from. The main variety (at that time in almost all existing orchards) was Barcelona, and as the name implies it was an import from Spain. It came to Oregon in the mid-1800's along with the pioneer settlers. The other a "child of the seventies" was the newer highly sought after variety Ennis (that had been recently released from the Oregon State University (OSU) Hazelnut Breeding Program), another large inshell nut chosen for the Christmas "nut bowl" market in Europe and especially Germany.
Very much like today, the Oregon Hazelnut industry's main focus is the inshell market. It produced a large high quality inshell hazelnut very popular and lucrative for the export market.
Having a very small orchard, combined with unusually low field prices for several years, Sally and I (in the early 1990's) began to understand the only way we could make any money on our small quantity of hazelnuts would be to get a "higher value" out of them. Up to that time there was little incentive for the general industry to value-add hazelnuts. There wasn't much existing hazelnut processing technology within the United States to go by. When we tried to make things with these inshell varieties we quickly found out they had not been selected for that purpose. Barcelona was chosen first for its size and appearance of its inshell. The skin of Barcelona is thick (while healthful) it is full of phenolics and is quite bitter. When you were roasting it the skin wouldn't come off completely when you wanted it to; yet the skin of Barcelona had a great tendency to come off when you didn't want it to, like when you were applying salt or seasoning. A lot of your salt or seasoning ended up in the bottom of the bag along with the loose skins (not a good thing for product or its appearance). The kernel itself had a tendency to break when roasted, making it difficult to coat in our chocolate coating pans (a difficult technology we had learned in 1996 with the help of the Swiss Chocolatier Walter Kuetel). When cooling air was applied on the nuts being coated we had a brown snowstorm of hazelnut skins in the panning room air which made quite a mess. It became obvious we were asking something of the variety Barcelona it had not been selected for. After all, it was primarily a very successful inshell variety.
About this time a very deadly fungus called Eastern Filbert Blight(EFB) was working its way southward into the Willamette Valley in Oregon (a very nasty import from the Eastern United States where it had pretty much decimated the hazelnuts there). The OSU Hazelnut Breeding program had, with great effort, just finished releasing Ennis, a variety that later proved unfortunately to be highly susceptible to the blight, along with Daviana, the pollinizer for our main variety Barcelona. As if this wasn't enough bad news, the industry's main cultivar, Barcelona, also was found to be susceptible - for a while it seemed the end to our industry.
These events completely changed the focus of the Oregon State Hazelnut Breeding Program then under the new guidance of Dr. Shawn Mehlenbacher. What followed was the testing for genetic resistance (this was done at that time through a process of exposing trees to the Eastern Filbert Blight and then waiting to see if they became infected) of varieties already in the program. Through this testing two varieties showed elevated quantitative resistance to the blight combined fortunately for Sally and I with high kernel quality. This fortunate combination brought about their release in the late 1990's as Lewis and Clark. They were not, I should mention, highly resistant, meaning they could succumb if the fungal spore load was high enough. There was great risk still of planting these in the north where the fire of infection was quickly burning. It wasn't until the first release of the cultivar Santiam with the naturally occurring Gasaway gene that high resistance was available. About that time Sally and I got the chance to test these new kernel varieties as a means to improve our products, we got very excited about them. Lewis was the larger of the two with exceptional taste, oil content and aroma. Clark the smaller of the two blanched almost completely (almost no skin left on when roasted) had great texture, taste and very little breakage when roasted, at that time the best chocolate coating and salted and seasoned nut we had ever seen! The big problem remaining was, hazelnuts take many years (up to ten or more) to come into full production from planting.
What to do? We didn't want to have to apply four fungicide sprays (we have never believed in the use of pesticides) in the early spring to prolong the slow death of our trees (Barcelona and Ennis). We finally decided our only viable option was to sell our orchard and move from where we had spent fifteen years building processing facilities, planting and growing new orchards, this was a difficult decision. Well, it happened very quickly, something we are still very thankful for, as the property was fortunately better suited for grapes and the buyer ended up planting a vineyard. Meanwhile, Sally's father, Dan Tracer, had retired from farming and the original family homestead was available for purchase. I was 52 years old at that time and less than really excited about starting over. Somehow we signed our name on the bottom line and "got up the courage" and made the move to the Corvallis property, a 225-acre high quality row crop parcel with water rights but completely undeveloped, no processing building, house, not even a road and of course, no hazelnut trees. The next big problem was that the new releases, Lewis and Clark, from Oregon State were not readily available in large numbers in the year 2000 when we moved.
The process of micropropagation (multiplying by small cuttings in a clean controlled environment) was being used by large labs for many years for woody perennials before the Oregon Hazelnut Commission funded a research project with Microplant Inc. of Gervais, Oregon, to learn how to micropropagate hazelnuts, they were successful. This all occurring about the time Sally and I moved to the Corvallis property. The original house had long been torn down in the 1970's and current county/state zoning said we couldn't have a house. We were camping out in a camper while I spent a year convincing the powers that be even though I had 225 acres that I wanted to farm and I had a right to live in an exclusive farm zone. At that years annual winter meeting of the Nut Growers Society, Gayle Suttle of Microplant asked if there were any growers at the meeting that would like to help fund (by paying for the initiation and guarantee of purchase of a minimum of 5,000 trees), the micropropagation of hazelnut varieties. We started to think about our new 225-acre property and how much we wanted those two new exceptional kernel varieties, Lewis and Clark. We became aware of the Specialty Crop Grant Program through the USDA. We applied and were accepted! To our surprise we were on our way to becoming a hazelnut nursery. We knew nothing about acclimatizing hazelnut trees let alone the micropropagation process. That was 2002. I was able to get a few conventionally produced layers which we planted behind our production facility. After many failed attempts of producing viable cultures of Lewis and Clark we finally had success and in 2003 we received 60,000 plantlets which we acclimatized mostly Lewis with some Clark. Some we sold, some we planted (using a new method of planting small trees with a laser-guided transplanter) bringing our new orchard acreage total to 80 acres. Sally and I knew nothing about the nursery business, but we had by then become very accustomed to "between a rock and a hard place" learning.
I finally convinced the state and county regulators we weren't an inappropriate addition to the neighborhood and we were granted the right to live on our property in a house and by then we had built our processing building including our Farm Stand. We had to buy all of our nuts for the first eight years, fortunately I had a truly good friend who owned Cascade Foods in Albany who dried and shelled nuts from local orchards. Our customers were wonderful and most of them stayed with us from some of the very first days in our small shop on our old place. Margins were thin, we worked unbelievable hours and hazelnut prices greatly increased during this period (because we had to buy them these higher prices made it even more difficult). We many times wondered if we could survive until our new orchard produced enough nuts.
To our great relief, in 2011, our orchard provided enough hazelnuts to see us through to the new season! This story will be continued...