Corn is ubiquitous in modern diets but it was unknown to Europeans until they learned of the crop from Native Americans. And there are other foods known to Native Americans for thousands of years that could turn into important crops. One of those foods may be derived from the native-American hazelnut.

Native varieties that resist diseases grow in northern Wisconsin. “Plants Used by the Great Lakes Ojibwe,” published by the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, indicates the American hazelnut – Corylus Americana – was used for food by native people. The inner bark was used to make dye and the wood was used to make sticks for drumming. There are European varieties of hazelnut but they’re prone to disease.

As a new crop that could be used as a windbreak for conventional crops it’s intriguing. It’s one a producer could plant once and then harvest from for the rest of his or her life. Hazelnuts are a crop that can lock soil in place. They could be a new crop to bring another cash flow into an agribusiness.

“In 2009 near Bayfield, (Wisconsin), we planted a first-generation trial with a selection of the best hazelnuts from all over the Upper Midwest,” said Jason Fischbach, agriculture agent for the University of Wisconsin-Division of Extension, as he stood next to a recently planted plot of hybrid hazelnuts. “From those we choose the top-10. We are now establishing new trials with the 10 best from the trial in Bayfield. This is part of the kickoff of the Northwest Wisconsin Hazelnut Growers Cluster. We’re getting clusters of growers to work together so there are enough to support harvester and processing infrastructure.”

To conduct the trials financing was necessary.

“We had to put together a federal grant proposal,” he said. “We needed matching funds; the Savanna Institute out of Madison stepped up and helped us obtain those funds.”

The Savanna Institute is working on hazelnut-growing projects in southern Wisconsin.

Jamie Nelson and her partner, Kevin Zak, own 40 acres a few miles south of Washburn, Wisconsin. One of the new UW hazelnut trials is on their farm.

“As a farm business in ‘year zero’ we’re thrilled to be hosting Jason’s team’s efforts to increase hazelnut production in our county (and) region,” Nelson said. “It’s encouraging to have the hazelnut trials growing alongside our annual vegetable-production systems. As the infrastructure goes in and our field-cultivation methods for our annual crops are developed, the hazelnuts will be integrated into that system.

“We know that in order to support ecological stability in our growing systems (and) the environment at large, we should work to increase biological diversity in significant ways. Since 2016 we have planted a variety of other beneficial trees and shrubs on this acreage. We see including these hybrid hazelnuts as a way to both complement our annual crop production and be good stewards of the land.”

If all goes well producers can go from planting to harvest in three years, Fischbach said. Harvesters will be available once enough producers in northern Wisconsin are producing hazelnuts. In the meantime a processing facility has been developed at the Hulings-Rice Food Center on the Northland College campus in Ashland, Wisconsin. That processing facility currently serves all the Upper Midwest.

To maximize cash flow on land used to grow hazelnuts, agroforestry techniques like alley cropping can be used, where traditional crops are grown between rows of hazelnuts. Vegetables, flowers and hay can be grown between those rows.

Hazelnuts look like a viable nut crop for Wisconsin. Farmers may again use a crop known to Native Americans for generations.

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Jason Maloney is an “elderly” farm boy from Marinette County, Wisconsin. He’s a retired educator, a retired soldier and a lifelong Wisconsin resident. He lives on the shore of Lake Superior with his wife, Cindy Dillenschneider, and Red, a sturdy loyal Australian Shepherd.