The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • Crop conversion: Time for perennial rather than annual

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  • I was really pleased with the reception I received when visiting with several farmers and vendors at the recent eighth annual Iowa Renewable Fuels Association Conference about the prospect of growing hybrid hazelnuts as a renewable fuels crop rather than growing corn or soybeans.
    They liked the idea that hazels are a perennial crop that only needs to be planted once and has potential to replace corn and beans as a fuel source.
    The definition of a perennial crop is that it's in the ground for many years.
    These plants will definitely grow well for at least 25 years, and probably a lot longer, and the main reason that you might want to replant is that someone has developed better varieties than what you have in the ground. Think about the fact that the root system goes way deeper than corn or beans, and is way less susceptible to drought or cold spells.
    One of the issues discussed at the Fuels Association Conference was that some years have seen a lower corn yield either because it was too wet in the spring to get into the ground or it was too hot and dry to produce much of a crop.
    None of those things matter with hazelnuts.
    You also have to consider hazelnuts are already using the sunshine way earlier in the year to produce a crop than does corn or beans. That gives hazels the potential to produce far more product than either corn or beans.
    In fact, there are some plants in the primary hazelnut research plantation in Minnesota that already could out produce corn and beans if they were grown on many acres. Remember, corn and beans have had the power of big industry researching their traits for a really long time while hazels are barely known in this country.
    If the same power of research were applied to hazels, we could see fields of hazelnuts instead of plowed fields of corn.
    The University of Minnesota did the research that confirmed that anything you can make out of corn and beans can be made out of hazelnuts. Actually, you can eat hazelnuts out of hand while no one would eat field corn or beans out of the field as is. You also get lots of wildlife associated with a perennial woody crop compared to annual crops like corn and beans.
    A very important factor is that erosion would be reduced tremendously by making the change from annual crops to a perennial crop. It also would reduce the number of times a tractor had to be in the field because there would be no plowing in the spring and you would not have to incorporate corn stubble into the ground.
    The first question that I was asked by everyone with whom I talked was, could the crop be harvested by machine? Presently, they are harvesting the crop with blueberry picking machines that ride over the hedge row and shake the crop free of branches.
    Page 2 of 2 - As with anything else, there are certainly improvements that could be made to mechanical picking, but the point is that it is presently possible to mechanically pick hazelnuts.
    So, where do you get more information about hazelnuts and woody agriculture?
    Well, you search online for them or go directly to Badgersett Research Farm in southeast Minnesota.
    You may get direct contact with Dr. Phil Rutter, who actually provided the hybrid hazels for the demonstration grove on Fort Leavenworth. We maintain that grove as a worst-case scenario to show that even if you do nothing about weeds, fertilizer, pesticides, trees, watering, etc., and even if you let the sheep graze on the grass and broad-leaved weeds, you will still always get a crop.
    It would be much larger if you managed it well, but you will always get a crop.
    I think it's time to consider making the switch from annual crops to a perennial crop.
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