Northland College is experiencing a hazelnut invasion. There are three-hundred seedlings in the CSE Greenhouse, a hazelnut processor and cracker in the Hulings Rice Food Center, and last semester business students tackled hazelnut product development and marketing in the classroom and in the Larson Food Lab.
“Hazelnuts are the next cranberry,” said Jason Fischbach of the University of Wisconsin, who for twelve years has been breeding hazelnuts for taste and Midwestern hardiness. The goal: to make it the next cash crop for Wisconsin farmers.
Hazelnuts grow wild in northern Wisconsin. They are also delicious, nutritious, will grow in most soils, and might be the next best thing for water quality, soil retention, and farm economics.
Conventional farming promotes soybean-corn rotation that relies on fossil fuel-intensive fertilizers and machinery and leaves the soil vulnerable to erosion. Hazelnuts provide an alternative, a deep-rooted perennial crop that holds the soil, absorbs and stores carbon, and produces a high protein crop for humans.
Hazelnuts can be raised among other crops or grasses, offering acres of habitat for bumblebees and other key pollinators.
“I was skeptical years ago, but the more I learn, the more I see hazelnuts as a solution,” said Todd Rothe, director of the Food Center and owner of River Road Farm.
Fischbach is poised to distribute hazelnut seedlings to farmers in the spring of 2020 though it will take years to see results—four years before hazelnuts start producing and eight years until farmers see a profit.
But the wait could be worth it.
With their high protein and oil contents, hazelnuts make better animal feed and biofuel than soybeans and the high oil content makes them valuable for cooking oils.
Using the hazelnuts processed at the Hulings Rice Food Center, The American Hazelnut Company in Gays Mills, Wisconsin, is producing gluten-free flour, bagged nuts, and hazelnut oil, now sold in grocery stores, including the Chequamegon Food Cooperative.
With worldwide demand for hazelnuts expected to double in the next ten years and the potential for growing hazelnuts in the Midwest, there’s a need for product development and market testing.
That’s where Northland business students come in.
Fischbach and Rothe talked to Jennifer Kuklenski, instructor in business, who incorporated hazelnuts into the curriculum of her Entrepreneurship course.
Five teams of students created original recipes—hazelnut milk, vegan ice cream, protein energy balls, vegan and gluten-free cookie dough, and a low-sugar chocolate hazelnut spread. They tested their products with students, staff, and faculty, who filled out forms rating taste, texture, and preferences then presented their proposals at the end of the semester.
The HealthNut cookies, created by Taylor Ann Jensen, Itzel Rios Soto, and Zach Ditzenberger, scored highest in the taste test. In their proposal to the American Hazelnut Company, students talked about taste, environment, and demographics.
Their business pitch: HealthNut Cookie Dough is committed to improving the quality of gluten-free and vegan cookies. “HealthNut believes that gluten-free cookies do not have to be hard as a rock, dry, and tasteless,” they said.
The team stacked hazelnuts against the popular almond. In short, hazelnuts pack more nutritional value and use less water. For instance, almonds require 1.1 gallons to grow a single almond; hazelnuts need .42 to grow a bush and are drought resistant.
Marketing to health and socially-conscious millennials and a secondary market of Gen-Xers, they think they might be onto something.
So does the American Hazelnut Company, who has expressed interest in potentially adding HealthNut Cookie Dough to their product line. Stay tuned.
“I was really impressed with the hard work and dedication these students gave to their products in development,” Rothe said. “We definitely look forward to seeing if anything comes of it and to providing more of these opportunities to our students in the future.”