By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Nov 29, 2003 at 5:44 AM

Hazelnuts and chestnuts aren't new to the United States, but they're not as ubiquitous as peanuts or cashews. Fans of the delicious nuts often have to look hard to find these treats, which are extremely popular in European countries.

Although hazelnuts are widely grown in the Pacific Northwest, they're just beginning to appear in Wisconsin, but growing on hybrid bushes rather than trees. These hybrids, under development in the Upper Midwest since the 1930s, are hardier and more resistant to our winters.

One farmer taking a lead role in the Wisconsin hazelnut -- and chestnut -- industry is Mark L. Shepard, Consulting Agroforester at Forest Agriculture Enterprises, near Viola in the southwestern part of the state. Shepard is, literally, writing the book on growing hazelnuts -- also called filberts in the U.S. -- in Wisconsin. His handbook is currently in production.

Being a huge fan of both hazelnuts and the more acquired taste of chestnuts, I was eager to talk to Shepard about his work.

OMC: What gave you the idea to begin growing hazelnuts and chestnuts in Wisconsin? They're not typical here, are they?

MS: My intention was to discover, plant and manage a farm that was a functional, permanent ecosystem instead of a monocrop that was bare soil for eight months of the year. Hazelnuts are native to the region. Chestnuts appeared in isolated pockets.

OMC: What had you been farming previously? Did you make a big switch or was it gradual?

MS: I operated a landscape design and construction company. (I) grew up on a "farmette" with a huge garden, fruit, nuts, goats, chickens, pigs, woodlot, etc. Instead of just living the farmette lifestyle I wanted to discover if it was possible for human beings to get their staple foods from permanent plants.

Wes Jackson and the Land Institute has been theorizing for years about developing perennial grain crops to no avail. Why not woody crops? Hence the chestnut (nutritionally equivalent to corn) and the Hazel (nutritionally equivalent to the soybean with three times the oil) as the staple food crops to be grown on the farm.

What I can't or don't sell for the human consumption market can go for biodiesel or animal feed. I never have to plow, plant, cultivate, spray, herbicide again. The cost savings alone for not doing just those five operations are huge. Magnify that by millions of farmers and you have astronomically huge fuel savings.

OMC: How long have you been growing the hazels? Chestnuts?

MS: I grew up in New England among the remnants of the blight-ravaged American Chestnut. Beaked hazel grew along streambanks. I've been interacting with these plants all my life. As an "official" farmer, I've been growing commercial quantities of both for seven years now.

OMC: You grow a hybrid hazelnut plant, is that correct? On your farm we won't see the trees that are more typical in Europe and the Pacific Northwest will we?

MC: They are indeed bushes. Similar in form to the common lilac. On this farm you'll see zillions of hazelnut hedges on contour. The present plants are selections from crosses that occurred long ago (30 years) that include European Hazel (Corylus avelana), American Hazel (C. americana) and Beaked Hazel (C. cornuta). The observant grower can see traits from its ancestors ... some are very European looking (upright, vase shaped, large shrub) some more rounded like the American and some with long husks like the beaked.

OMC: What are the benefits of this? Are the nuts basically the same?

MS: The nuts are basically the same. Slightly different shape, more complex in flavor. The benefits of bushes include ease of mechanical harvest, no need for pruning or removal of suckers as is the case in the Pacific Northwest and no need for a bare-naked, perfectly level orchard floor. Between the rows of hazels we grow other crops from asparagus to raspberries to grapes to prairie flowers. You would not recognize this "mess" as either an "orchard" or a "farm". It is a savanna ecosystem. A savanna ecologist, however, would have a fit because everything is in rows so it can be managed and harvested with tractors!

OMC: You're something of a pioneer in the state, aren't you? Tell us about the handbook you're compiling.

MS: I guess if you're the first to do something, that qualifies you as a pioneer. The handbook is a very basic intro about hybrid hazelnut growing. The first edition has been sent to press and is available from SW Badger RC&D. (Call 608-348-3235 and ask for the Hybrid Hazelnut Grower's Handbook.)

OMC: What's your market for the nuts? Are they sold in the U.S. or beyond?

MS: Proprietory information! Sold in the US. My markets could easily consume 40 acres of hazels per week without even stretching. These crops are as versatile as corn and soybeans. They are a perfect industrial food ingredient. When we show that we can produce chestnuts and hazels as inexpensively as folks can grow corn and soybeans, your Cheetoh's will begin to be made from chestnuts and you won't even realize it. Same goes for soy products.

OMC: How's business? Do you expect to expand production?

MS: Our most mature hazelnut plants are finally coming into peak production. It will be another three years until the entire farm reaches mature hazel production. The chestnuts are nowhere near mature production levels. I'm aware of several old chestnut plantings that are 60+ yrs old and their crops are still increasing. I'm interested in expanding as fast as I can. Are you a potential investor?

OMC: What's your favorite use for hazelnuts? Chestnuts? Do you like them?

MS: Roasted hazelnut maple ice cream. WOW! Or is it hazelnut/shiitake pate? Or is it hazelnut/apple stuffed pork chops?

Although I've tried a zillion uses for chestnuts I still like them raw the best!, though they are great in stuffing, cream soups ( I make a fantastic squash/sour cream/lentil soup) they're great in apple pies, etc.

OMC: Any hints for consumers about selecting nuts? What should one look for when buying them?

MS: Whatever you do, do NOT buy chestnuts unless they are refrigerated. They are very perishable and will taste bad or be rotten if they are stored on the end-cap with the other nuts. Get them fresh from your local chestnut farmer for best results! Since most chestnuts that you would find in the U.S. come from Italy, you must realize that they are not the primo nuts. The best of the best are sold in Europe for the highest prices with the lowest shipping costs. The crap goes to the U.S. with their totally unrefined, mass-market pallettes.

Hazelnuts are more durable and can last for years at room temps without spoiling. Its hard to find a bad hazelnut even if it does come from Oregon or Turkey!

MS: I'm excited about the season. It's always nice in fall when it gets easier to find hazelnuts and chestnuts! Happy harvest ...

MS: Picking Hazelnuts began in earnest yesterday. Enjoy!

You can read excerpts from the handbook and learn more at www.badgersett.com/HazHandbook1.html. You can also email Mark Shepherd via this link. Call him at (608) 627-TREE.

Hazelnut ice-cream
(courtesy of the Slow Food Movement)

For 10 people:
300g hazelnuts
8 egg yolks
white of one egg
1 liter milk
1 vanilla pod
500g sugar

First you must toast the hazelnuts, which should be of a delicate flavor. Avoid using ready-toasted hazelnuts sold in bags. When the nuts have been toasted, they must be finely ground using the correct equipment: if you do not have this available, you can use a bottle (rolled over the nuts on a chopping board) or a hand-mincer -- but do not use electric liquidizers. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar, add the milk and vanilla pod (but remove the latter before putting the mixture in the ice-cream-making machine). Bring to the boil; after a few minutes, when the cream begins to bind, take off the heat and cool. Now add the ground nuts and the stiffly-whisked egg white, then put the mixture in the ice-cream maker for as long as required.

Preparation time: half an hour

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.