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Shepard pioneering Wisconsin's hazelnut, chestnut industry

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?

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