Jay Thompson, above, and his father, Tim, planted their first hazelnut trees 10 years ago.
Oregon growers find new ways to add diversity and value.
The Ice Age was good to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. When glacial ice jams collapsed to the north more than 15,000 years ago, epic floods picked up soils from what is now eastern Washington, Idaho and Montana and deposited them in a deep, rich blanket of topsoil throughout the valley.
Just 60 miles from the Pacific Ocean, the region’s Mediterranean climate makes it ideal for more than 170 crops, from grass seed and nursery plants to Christmas trees, wheat, pears, hazelnuts and peppermint.
Nestled between three mountain ranges, valley farmers are proudly agricultural but always ready to try something new. The local foods movement took hold in the region more than a decade ago, fueled by consumer demand around cities from Portland to Eugene and supported by state legislation that encourages diverse farming practices and agricultural growth.
Grapes for wine are one of the more than 170 crops grown in the Willamette Valley's Mediterranean climate.
Pratum Cooperative is at the center of it all. Established in 1946, the cooperative based in Salem, Ore., provides agronomy and energy products and services, plus grass seed
The cooperative’s sales neared $140 million in 2018, up from $108 million the year before, says Troy Kuenzi, president. One factor in the revenue leap was purchasing an ag service center that includes agronomy, grain marketing and a 15-million-pound seed processing plant in Madras, Ore. Located about 150 miles from Salem, on the other side of the Cascade Mountains, the acquisition was part of a strategy to diversify in location, climate and grass species, he says.
The co-op also has an energy division handling refined fuels, lubricants, propane and several retail sites.
Opting for Permanence
An old crop with surging consumer demand, hazelnut production is a Willamette Valley success story. Virtually all U.S. hazelnuts (also called filberts) come from the valley’s family farms.
The first hazelnut tree was planted in Oregon in 1858, but production didn’t explode until 2008 when the crop became a solution for increased crop diversity and greater return per acre. The Oregon Hazelnut Marketing Board estimates 3,000 acres of new hazelnut trees are planted in the valley each year, with 45,000 acres already in production. Jay Thompson and his father, Tim, produce hazelnuts, grass seed and other specialty crops near Salem. Heading into their 10th year of hazelnut production, the Thompsons have planted 165 acres of trees and are harvesting nuts on 105 acres. When mature, the trees should produce at least 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of hazelnuts per acre, depending on soil type, irrigation practices and tree density.
They focus on two varieties, Jefferson and the newer McDonald, both bred to resist the costly effects of Eastern filbert blight (EFB). Jefferson trees are about 35 percent smaller than the traditional Barcelona variety, says Thompson, and are meant to drop their nuts, avoiding the need to shake trees for harvest. “That saves equipment costs and means we can do it all ourselves on the farm.”
Hazelnut trees start producing nuts four to five years after planting and reach full production at 12 to 15 years of age, says Jay Thompson.
Planting occurs in October and November if soil moisture is sufficient. Seeded winter wheat provides ground cover for moisture retention and weed control. The Thompsons installed irrigation lines to push water to young trees. “The tree’s future is determined at the start. If they are stressed or weak, that will affect their production for life,” he says.
The hazelnut plant is really a shrub trained to grow as a single-trunk tree. That means pruning suckers by hand for a few years. After that, a small tractor equipped with a boom sprayer and an electronic eye can spot and chemically defoliate unwanted growth at the base of each tree. “This system has helped us reduce chemical use by 25 percent and prevents tree damage,” says Thompson. Once the trees reach canopy, annual pruning encourages new growth and lets in sunlight.
Thompson says the Pratum Co-op team has become like another employee of the farm, providing crop protection services, foliar fertilizer and fuel. “We bounce ideas off each other to save time. Our agronomist, Clinton Kuenzi, knows our goals and what’s happening in the season. He periodically tours the farm and advises us on what to do.”
(Pratum Cooperative is something of an extended family affair, with several team members bearing the Kuenzi moniker — a common name in Oregon ag circles.)
The goal is to export hazelnuts in the shell, which requires excellent quality and large kernels. Spring starts with a granular broadcast fertilizer. Later, the coop team makes foliar applications of micronutrients, including boron, potassium, phosphorus, iron, zinc and manganese. Fungicide applications start at bud break and continue every two to four weeks until the end of the rainy season.
Dropped nuts are swept into windrows, picked up by a harvester that removes debris and deposited into totes. Totes are lifted onto trucks and hauled to a processing plant, where they are washed, dried and sorted. Producers are often part owners of the processing plant.
The Thompsons lease 75 percent of their acreage, so the decision to commit to a permanent crop like hazelnuts wasn’t easy, Thompson says. “We wanted to diversify our farm with a higher-value crop. We have faith the investment will pay off and we take care of every piece of land like it is our own.”
Adding trees is just one change the family has made in the last decade. The farm had been invested heavily in grass seed production — until the 2008 recession hit. Housing starts and golf course updates were put on hold, which stalled grass seed demand. “It was the perfect storm in the worst way possible,” says Thompson. “Fortunately, wheat demand was strong, so we multiplied our wheat acres.” As grass seed demand recovered, they switched to a rotation of grass seed (perennial ryegrass, turf-type tall fescue and fine fescue), crimson clover and winter wheat.
Thompson was elected to the Pratum Co-op board five years ago. “When I joined the board, the cooperative was completely changing how it did business. I was apprehensive, thinking I was too young to contribute the wisdom that comes with experience. But I have learned a lot and I appreciate having a voice in the future.”
From the Ground Up
Ivan and Sophia Schurter are Willamette Valley growers taking a different sort of leap. They started their tree nursery from scratch in 2000, planting thousands of tiny arborvitae shrubs and adding acres each year. Now truckloads of the slim 4- to 6-foot-tall evergreens are harvested each spring, wrapped in burlap and shipped for resale by garden centers from the Midwest to the mid-Atlantic states.
“We start with seedlings in 4-inch pots for the first four to six months, then move them into gallon pots for a year,” Ivan explains. In the fall, small shrubs are transplanted into fields 30 inches apart in 5-foot rows. Harvest runs from February through May.
Ivan Schurter, left, and Pratum Cooperative agronomist Clinton Kuenzi check the health of arborvitae shrubs nearly ready to harvest for transplanting in landscapes across the Midwest and Atlantic Coast.
Leading arborvitae concerns are spider mites and root rot. Three or four miticide applications per year and well-drained soils help avoid losses.
The Schurter operation includes 10 employees year-round and up to 40 seasonal employees. Companies that specialize in finding contract labor help cover planting needs. “We try not to interfere with grape or hops harvest to ensure enough labor is available.”
The Pratum Co-op agronomy team includes 17 full-time crop advisors working with about 250 growers every day and four times that many during the growing season, says Agronomy Division Manager Doug Kuenzi. Managing the needs of dozens of crops means that while all the advisors are grass production experts, individuals become specialists in the other crops, depending on the farmers they work with.
“We have a robust network of support from Oregon State University staff to private researchers to chemical suppliers that we can tap into to learn about various crops, growing aspects and management programs,” says Doug.
“Our challenge is to grow with innovation, knowledge and people so we can continue to serve our growers and fill a necessary niche with these high-value crops.”
The Willamette Valley is a grass-seed-growing wonderland. It’s a $455 million business for the state, and Oregon leads the nation in producing several grass species.
The perfect combination of wet, mild winter conditions and dry summers helps grow grass and prepare for seed harvest, explains Aaron Kuenzi, executive vice president and division manager of Mountain View Seeds, a business started by Pratum Cooperative in 1998.
Aaron Kuenzi heads Mountain View Seeds, a business of Pratum Cooperative, which markets high-quality grass seed.
Mountain View processes and markets member-grown seed for turfgrass, forage crops and cover crops. Nearly 100 producers grow seed under contract for Mountain View. Annual sales of about 60 million pounds of seed puts Mountain View in the top five U.S. grass seed companies, competing with brands like Scotts and Pennington.
Roughly 80 percent of Mountain View production is turf seed. About 12 percent goes overseas, 15 percent goes to consumer products for farm and fleet stores and the rest is sold into the wholesale professional market for use on golf courses, by landscape companies and to beautify sports fields.
Fescue, annual ryegrass and perennial ryegrass are the most popular seed types. Bluegrass, bentgrass and alfalfa seed are also significant contributors.
Quality is paramount for grass seed customers, since no turf superintendent wants to see weeds popping up on a football field or fairway. Another Pratum Co-op business, Peak Plant Genetics, develops new grass varieties for better performance and uniformity.
“Eight years ago, we decided to control our genetics,” says Aaron. “We wanted to not only develop germplasm, but also do the research to make sure the forage or grass seed will grow like we want it to. Of the 30 or so grass seed companies, only a few have research companies.”
New products are grown by farmers under contract with Mountain View. Seed production managers walk the fields two or three times a year to watch for genetic off-types and volunteer grasses. Pratum Co-op agronomists scout the fields for weed and disease concerns.
From Farm to Field
The cooperative can clean 12,000 pounds of seed per hour, says President Troy Kuenzi, with the goal of 98 to 99 percent purity. Seed mixes are blended to suit customer needs by application and environment. In preparation for fall planting, the company ships up to 700,000 pounds of seed per day.
“Our quality control allows us to track which seed went to a certain location and which grower produced it,” says Aaron. “It’s great for the farmers to understand where their product is going, like the Los Angeles Rams stadium, the Rose Bowl or a U.S. Open course. There is definitely an advantage to being farmer-owned and American-owned.”
“We are vertically integrated on purpose,” adds Troy. “We may not be the lowest-cost provider, but that’s not our strategy. Our strategy is to be a value-added, high-quality company.”
See more: Watch a video about Oregon growers.