Rows of dead trees were ripped up at Canadian Hazelnut Inc. due to infection from the Eastern Filbert Blight.

Hazelnut trees removed due to widespread disease

Eastern Filbert Blight attacks Agassiz orchards, decimating hazelnut yields

Eastern Filbert Blight. The name brings shudders to hazelnut farmers everywhere.

It was not about if, but when, this fungal disease would attack local orchards. EFB first made its appearance in the Fraser Valley in 2001 but has been snaking its way up the continent slowly, first appearing in Oregon’s vast hazelnut orchards in 1958, according to the Oregon State University.

EFB causes hazelnut trees to decline in production, eventually killing the tree. It hit B.C. in Abbotsford in 2001, Langley in 2005 and Yarrow in 2008. Agassiz and Chilliwack were right behind.

“We have 500 to 600 acres in the Fraser Valley of dead trees,” says Peter Andres, an Agassiz hazelnut farmer and past president of the BC Hazelnut Grower’s Association. “Every farm is affected.”

Hazelnuts are a huge business here. Andres says approximately 90 per cent of Canadian hazelnut crops are grown in Agassiz and Chilliwack. Canadian Hazelnut Inc. is the largest organic hazelnut farm in Canada, with 50 acres of planted trees. Well, that was the case until two weeks when they started removing the entire orchard, tree by tree.

“We’re starting to clear the land to make way for blight-resistant seedlings,” says office manager Shelley Krahn.

The 20-acre parcel visible from Highway 7 was the first to go. The orchard right next to the Canadian Hazelnut retail / processing plant was scheduled to be removed as well.

“We knew it would happen eventually. But we didn’t think it would happen as fast as it did,” says Krahn of the devastation wreaked on their trees by EFB.

Going back as far as 2000, Andres and other growers worked on preventative measures to stop EFB from reaching the valley.

“We spent a lot of money trying to slow the infection,” says Andres, ” But the disease came. We had to deal with it.”

Oregon is a much larger producer of hazelnuts than B.C. and has dealt with EFB for decades. Their breeders have had time and money to test new varieties. In 2010, several of those test trees were released for planting to the general public. With an arrangement through the shared U.S. / Canada hazelnut association, BC hazelnut growers got their hands on a few of the varieties.

Andres was the first farmer to plant the new varieties back in 2011. He actually removed trees that were still producing to make way for the test seedlings. Canadian Hazelnuts Inc. also planted a trial orchard, along with three other Fraser Valley locations and one on Hornby Island.

So far, the trials look promising though it will take years before the test plots can be guaranteed as good replacements for growers. But will other growers replant following the death of their current EFB-diseased trees?

Andres says growers are, for the most part, willing to replant if there are not too many barriers. The biggest barrier right now is the removal of the piles of dead trees. Many farmers would like to burn them but there have been few optimal days, according to government regulations. Andres kept track and says out of the last two months, there was only one day suitable for burning according to the regulations.

He addressed government officials at every level on this matter and hoped for a relaxation of the rules. District of Kent Mayor John Van Laerhoven says while he feels for the farmers, there is nothing the local government can do about the burning regulations.

“There are provincial regulations that districts have to comply by,” says Van Laerhoven. “We don’t get to turn a blind eye to them.”

Chilliwack-Hope MLA Laurie Throness says while the government wants to help the farmers to get rid of the dead trees, “It’s not an easy solution because there’s so much material.”

Another barrier is the cost of replanting. Hazelnut farmers eyed with envy the $8.4 million in provincial funding given to the B.C. fruit growers for a seven-year tree fruit replant program, announced back in November. Throness says he was unsuccessful in his efforts to get hazelnut growers included in this funding.

“That’s a disappointment for me,” says Throness.

But the local MLA sees hope for the industry and cites a new partnership in 2014 between the B.C. Hazelnut Grower’s Association and the University of the Fraser Valley, with UFV already growing some blight-resistant hazelnut trees. He hopes the local growers will choose to replant, saying it’s a great business with a lot of “value-added potential.”

Andres hopes hazelnut growers in the valley will decide to replant too.

“We have such a demand in the world, you can produce more and more hazelnuts and always be able to sell everything,” says Andres.

As for Canadian Hazelnuts, their plan is to replant. They’re just not sure when. First, they have to figure out a way to rid the fields of the dead trees. And they have to wait until they can get enough seedlings to do a full replanting. In the meantime, Krahn says the owner of the fields will most likely rent the land to a neighbouring farmer.

Andres says the hazelnut industry in Canada rests on the shoulders of individual growers, such as Canadian Hazelnuts, who decide now whether they will continue.

“We’re at the crossroads now,” concludes Andres.