Grow Nut Trees in your backyard

Woody Agriculture – On the Road to a New Paradigm

July 27, 2012.  Philip A. Rutter et. al.

[snipped and some paraphrasing – do read the whole long article at the link above if you are interested in planting nut trees.]

You may be familiar with the Land Institute’s work and hopes for a perennial agriculture based on future domestication of wild perennial prairie grasses.  But very few are familiar with Badgersett Research Corporation (BRC) which has been around as long as the Land Institute, but their research is based on woody plants,not grasses.   We could get most of our food from woody crop plants.

[Note: there are many other universities and institutions doing research on hazelnuts and other nut crop trees for just as long as Badgersett who may have better (hybrid) trees that would do better where you live than Badgersett, I.e. Oregon State University has been researching hazelnuts since the 1950s. Also the Universities of Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Rutgers, etc.]


Jeffery and I have never harvested our hazelnuts before the squirrels and scrub jays got them, now I know why:

One warning- the VAST MAJORITY of new hazel growers see their nuts developing, and ripening; and watch them very very carefully- until they are all gone off the bush.

Mice and bluejays jump on hazels the instant they show signs of ripeness (squirrels and chipmunks BEFORE then) – so you need to pick them before the critters; particularly on isolated bushes or plantings of just a few, where the animals can concentrate. This is a skill you can learn; we have hints here: there are 2 bits on “determining ripeness”. In general; there is a 2 week window where YOU can pick the nuts; before the critters do. But you have to jump before the bluejays- they will not forget.

Where do hazelnuts grow?

Be sure to research this before you buy any (zones, water requirements, fertilizer, etc). European varieties only produce in the Oregon area.  The do best in USDA zones 4-5, very well in 6, will grow but often not as well in zones 3, 7, 8, 9.


This company breeds hazelnuts, chestnuts, and hickory-pecan, for crops with wide adaptation and multiple uses, each with both food and biomass components. Both bush and tree forms are under development.

Hazels and hickories are “strictly” wind pollinated.

What we work on is distinct from the multiple versions of “Agroforestry”, which typically means growing timber with food crops, but no significant food from the trees themselves; and from “Tree crops”, the traditional practices described by J.Russell Smith in 1929, which do not include the potential for crop improvement using modern genetics. Agroecology and Permaculture are additional embodiments of progressive alternative agriculture; mainstream agronomists tend to feel both may deliver more ideologies than technologies, and so far can demonstrate few impacts on global problems. None of these alternatives have proven attractive to large scale farmers; and it is specifically large scale agriculture that has the most serious environmental impacts.

Long term inputs are dramatically smaller than for standard agriculture, and potential solar energy capture is very much greater; in the range of 3X more than single crop maize.

the US is in the grip of a broad and severe drought, already affecting crop prices and raising great concern. Our neohybrid hazels, growing under the same conditions which have destroyed neighboring corn fields, are nearly unaffected- except they are ripening their seed crop ahead of schedule. Experience in a similar drought in 1988 showed they could bear the crop, and also bear their crop in the next year.

Woody crops are also more tolerant than row crops to the other end of the weather spectrum; flood. Flood water that covers young annual plants will generally kill them; but woody plants, with their tops above water, are essentially unaffected.

One additional energy related advantage: woody agriculture can produce food; on the same scale as modern agriculture. But because of the 3X energy capture aspect the same crop can simultaneously produce a biomass fuel component. In the case of hazelnuts, our top recorded experimental yields, based on multiple single-bush data, indicates that food production exceeding soybean averages is attainable, with the nutshell component of the crop available for fuel, annually.

Dry neohybrid hazelnut shell is dense, with an energy content measured at 8,800 BTU/lb, at 1.8% ash. The wood component of the crop is harvested on a rotating basis, approximately once every 8-10 years. The entire energy picture for these crops is much more complex, and very importantly- flexible, within and between years, always with the potential to retain the food component.

For those with the interest, an hour-long video lecture is available on YouTube; the recorded introductory presentation from our annual 2 day Short Course. Be forewarned, this is an unhurried format, and starts out slow by internet standards; but the pace does pick up, and it is comprehensive.

Because woody perennial plants use energy stored from the previous year’s photosynthesis, they are able to deploy a full functional, deeply 3 dimensional solar collection array very rapidly, as soon as local average temperatures make physiological processes efficient. Annual row crops, of course, must build new collection capabilities out of current energy capture; and while perennial grasses also used stored energy to deploy collectors, they cannot achieve nearly the same depth or complexity.

Just a few reasons why tree nuts are so valuable:

•Non-perishable commodity foods (dry nuts are less perishable than grains.)
•Protein – avg 10%; nutritionally complete
–Hazel kernel is 60% oil; the chemical twin of olive oil
–Hickory/pecan is 70% oil
–Biodiesel demonstrated
•Carbohydrate – chestnut 50%, comparable to maize
•High density nutshell (pelletize/gasify/burn, bioplastics feedstock, chemical extractives)
•Hardwood biomass (fuel, paper, OSB, lumber, etc.)

It’s a no-till crop

While these ultimate “no-till” crops are frequently cited by others as being suitable for “marginal” crop lands, we do not make that recommendation. Marginal soils are at best steep; making machine harvest and other management more expensive, and at worst dry with poor soils- meaning crop yields will also be poor. Woody crops are expensive to establish compared to annual crops; good returns are critical. The woody crops may eventually perform better than tilled crops on such soils, but marginal land is not a pathway to seriously improved food or biomass production.

No-till is a big deal, it causes far less erosion.  From my Peak Soil article:

  • Row crops like corn and soy cause 50 times more soil erosion than sod crops (Sullivan 2004) or more (Al-Kaisi 2000), because the soil between rows can wash or blow away. If corn is planted with last years corn stalks left on the ground (no-till), erosion is less of a problem, but only about 20% of corn is grown no-till.  Soy is usually grown no-till, but has insignificant residues to harvest for fuel.
  • Long before there was “Peak Oil”, there was “Peak Soil”. Iowa has some of the best topsoil in the world.  In the past century, half of it’s been lost, from an average of 18 to 10 inches deep (Pate 2004, Klee 1991).
  • Productivity drops off sharply when topsoil reaches 6 inches or less, the average crop root zone depth (Sundquist 2005).
  • Crop productivity continually declines as topsoil is lost and residues are removed.  (Al-Kaisi May 2001, Ball 2005, Blanco-Canqui 2006, BOA 1986, Calviño 2003, Franzleubbers 2006, Grandy 2006, Johnson 2004, Johnson 2005, Miranowski 1984, Power 1998, Sadras 2001, Troeh 2005, Wilhelm 2004).
  • On over half of America’s best crop land, the erosion rate is 27 times the natural rate, 11,000 pounds per acre (NCRS 2006). The natural, geological erosion rate is about 400 pounds of soil per acre per year (Troeh 2005).  Some is due to farmers not being paid enough to conserve their land, but most is due to investors who farm for profit.  Erosion control cuts into profits.
  • Erosion is happening ten to twenty times faster than the rate topsoil can be formed by natural processes (Pimentel 2006).  That might make the average person concerned.  But not the USDA — they’ve defined erosion as the average soil loss that could occur without causing a decline in long term productivity.
  • Troeh (2005) believes that the tolerable soil loss (T) value is set too high, because it’s based only on the upper layers — how long it takes subsoil to be converted into topsoil.  T ought to be based on deeper layers – the time for subsoil to develop from parent material or parent material from rock.  If he’s right, erosion is even worse than NCRS figures.
  • We’ve come a long way since the 1930′s in reducing erosion, but that only makes it more insidious.  Erosion is very hard to measure — very little soil might erode for years, and then tons per acre blown or washed away in an extreme storm just after harvest, before a cover crop has had a chance to protect the soil.  We need better ways of measuring and monitoring erosion, since estimates wildly differ (Trimble 2000).

Pest management: we have found that “ecosystem pest management”, the provision of diverse habitat for the maintenance of insect predators/diseases – works. We currently use no pesticides of any kind, and do not foresee a need. Besides habitat maintenance, genetic improvement of crop adaptations to pests is perpetual.

Fertilizer: yes, of course. The woody crops must establish large root systems and above-ground wood in order to function. Wild trees take decades to achieve maturity, partly because they must accumulate basic nutritional components in the very small increments normally available to unmanaged environments; a bird dropping here, nutrients from a dropped branch there. Establishing food producing crop plants in the human time frame requires considerable fertilizer inputs.

Our current belief is that providing fertilizer on the same order as that used for maize will be necessary for the first 10 years; following that, the necessary inputs decrease. Some ongoing inputs will prove necessary; to the extent nutrients are removed in harvested crops, they will inevitably have to be replaced.

Applied fertilizer does not escape into aquifers or drainages. The first infrastructure these woody crops build is a huge, permanent root system; according to actual experiment a 6 year old hazel field captures 100% of applied fertilizer.

Animals are being integrated, and we see this as a viable direction. We utilize horses, sheep, and poultry between the aisles of the crop plants, to “mow grass”, translate legumes to crop available nitrogen, and help in crop plant management. We are attempting to calculate animal inputs and costs, for direct comparison with machine alternatives, e.g. the use of diesel powered mowers to keep grass short enough to allow harvest and discourage rodents. This is very much a work in progress, but initial results are quite promising. Even large commercial vineyards/orchards may now hire sheep and goats to do careful work, replacing fossil fuel inputs with animals.

Periodic coppice, the practice of cutting the trees or bushes to the ground on a rotating basis, is the method used to manage the removal of old wood, or wood getting too tall for best management. Hazel rotations are approximately 8-12 years; chestnut coppice can be managed on a 20-30 rotation, depending on the wood products desired. On the longer rotation, harvest may yield poles for utilities or log cabin construction, both high value products, or small dimension lumber; the shorter rotation will yield fence post, vine props, charcoal and biochar. Rotations for hickory-pecan are not established, but first experiments show very strong coppice response.

Philip A. Rutter, B. L. Rutter-Daywater, and S. J. Wiegrefe. Phil Rutter is the Founding President of The American Chestnut Foundation; trained in ecology and evolution, he has been working in SE Minnesota for 35 years on domesticating several woody plant genera for commodity agriculture-style food production.

Comments of interest (PAR is the author commenting)

Wild and untended nut and fruit trees suffer from parasites much more frequently than tended ones. Here in California, the native hunter-gatherer population would burn the undergrowth in oak forests every few years to keep the pests down and acorn production high. (see “Tending the Wild” by M. Kat Anderson) In this way, they achieved one of the densest hunter-gatherer populations in the world, a population which was largely sedentary. And that was with wild species – and the huge variation in crop yield from year-to-year.

In France we rarely keep fresh chesnut for long time. Longer storage require caning freezing, making it into a paste that look like peanut butter (but is more sweet) or grinding it into a flour that can be used to make bread.

PAR: One of the primary reasons I started working with chestnuts is that they do NOT “mast” crop [i.e. don’t bear any acorns for a year or more], in the normal meaning of the word. Oaks do (temperate oaks; some tropical ones do not); and in oaks it is typical for wild acorn production to vary by as much as 2,000%, from on year to another. Wild chestnuts, by comparison, may vary only as much as 50% from year to year; orders of magnitude more stable. The neohybrid breeding path generates seedlings where “wild type” instruction sets are disrupted, allowing us to select for plants that bear every year; progress there with the hazels is quite advanced; initial variations in the hickory-pecans indicate it’s possible.

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