How an Organic food distribution company helped save a 60-acre Organic hazelnut orchard in Oregon and their campaign to increase Organic acreage, improve regional food systems and economies, and mitigate climate change in the process.
Eugene, Oregon’s Hummingbird Wholesale, a long-time Organic food marketer, manufacturer and distributor, is on a mission to grow Organic acreage in Oregon (and in the world). In fact, with their #OrganicOregon #OrganicWorld campaign, they are building alliances in a movement to transition all of Oregon to Organic farming and land practices. A big hairy audacious goal, no doubt, but one that is not without some experience and capacity behind it. The kind that may just generate incremental success. While Hummingbird markets a wide variety of products, one very exciting and unique opportunity grows from one of Oregon’s most distinctive crops, hazelnuts, otherwise known as filberts.
The Horning family has been farming in Oregon’s Willamette Valley since the 1940’s. In 2017, fourth generation farmer, Steve Horning and his wife Krissy, owners of Deerhaven Farms purchased a 60-acre plot of certified Organic Hazelnuts from a neighbor to add to their existing 600 acres. Their plan was to maintain the Organic certification on this land, but with unpredictability in Organic hazelnut market prices, driven by lower-priced Turkish Organic hazelnuts, Horning considered converting the orchard back to conventional management. As Steve explained, “We just weren’t sure we could get a fair price for our crop in the current marketplace, especially considering the additional cost and the challenges that go along with Organic hazelnut production. We can’t remain farmers, if we can’t make any money. Farming is our life—we can’t imagine a better lifestyle for our family—but it is also our livelihood.”
At risk of losing 60 acres of mature, Organic Oregon hazelnuts, the owners of Hummingbird Wholesale, Charlie and Julie Tilt, saw an opportunity to use their business as a means for preventing the loss of this Organic ground. Growing Organic acreage is at the core of their business’s mission, after all, of providing high quality, regionally-grown, Organic foods. In support of the Horning’s maintaining Organic certification, the Tilts took a chance on pre-contracting to purchase and market Horning’s entire 2018 Organic hazelnut crop. With Hummingbird’s contracted sale in place, Horning was up for the challenge of keeping the Organic certification and practices on the orchard.
Oregon offers the perfect climate and soil for growing these delectable nuts that are well-known by chefs and product manufacturers, as well as lovers of good food. While 99% of the US hazelnut crop is grown in Oregon, only 1% of that is certified Organic—of roughly 70,000 total acres in Oregon, just over 700 are Certified Organic. While Organic production can be more labor intensive and can be a challenging transition for farmers, it is a worthwhile investment both environmentally and economically. Organic agriculture is focused on building healthier soils and provides positive impacts on the environment, such as greater carbon sequestration, helping to mitigate climate change. In fact, according to a study published in 2017, by Northeastern University and The Organic Center, soils on Organic farms sequester 26% more long-term carbon storage then conventional soils.
Organic agriculture may offer a win-win-win of climate change mitigation through Organic growing practices, greater economic return for products to farmers, and improved regional economies overall. According to research by Penn State Agricultural Economist Dr. Edward Jaenicke, published by the Organic Trade Association, Organic is the fastest growing sector of the US food trade—increasing by double digits annually—and provides an economic boost for communities. In US counties where there is a high level of Organic agricultural activity, household incomes go up by over $2000 and poverty levels are reduced by as much as 1.5 percent. These Organic “hot spots” can be found throughout agricultural communities United States; Oregon has one of the greatest concentrations in the US. Organic agriculture and the Organic trade serve as a path to a new, more sustainable economy.
The positive economic and environmental outcomes of supporting Oregon Organic hazelnut production and sales are certainly compelling, but they also come with a higher price tag than imported Organics. With prices of Oregon-grown, Organic hazelnuts higher than imported Turkish Organic hazelnuts, Hummingbird’s effort will only succeed if buyers of this specialty crop can embrace the exceptional value of paying more for these domestically cultivated varieties, rather than using the less expensive Organic Turkish hazelnuts that make up 80% of the market. The folks at Hummingbird are convinced that these nuts represent some of the best available, being larger in size, with a creamier, nuttier flavor, without the bitterness that some hazelnuts can have. “We are excited to be able to offer such a superior product that also provides such positive regional food system and environmental returns. When you taste an Oregon Organic hazelnut side-by-side with the Turkish nuts, there is just no contest,” explains Hummingbird owner and CEO, Charlie Tilt. Farmer Steve Horning agrees, “Oregon hazelnuts definitely set the high bar for quality.”
Quality and flavor profile aside, supporting Oregon Organic hazelnut farmers and production is perfectly in-line with Hummingbird’s mission and values—to create and support a robust regional economy and food system, with sustainable, Organic practices at the heart of this work. One of the best ways to put this mission into action is to create pathways to success for Organic family farmers, by ensuring a good financial return for their products by developing the marketplace opportunities that will sustain the growth of Organic acreage, one acre, one farm at a time.
Hummingbird Wholesale has Oregon-grown (Willamette Valley), certified Organic Hazelnuts available, from Deerhaven Farms and others from the 2018 crop year, for sale in case and pallet quantities. The sale of these hazelnuts provides a fair return to farmers, and a portion of the proceeds will go toward supporting Oregon’s Organic Hazelnut industry in the Willamette Valley and to increasing Organic acreage in the Pacific Northwest.
Written by Stacy Kraker, Director of Marketing and Sales, Hummingbird Wholesale and Board President of the Oregon Organic Coalition. With a passion for building healthy communities and food systems, Stacy has worked in the organic trade for over 15 years, leading strategic marketing, education and outreach efforts for regional organic and sustainable food businesses and organizations. This article was first published in Take Root magazine Summer 2019 issue.