Hazelnut grower finds satisfaction in service

Giving back is important to longtime hazelnut grower Wayne Chambers, who has presided over his 145-acre orchard for the last 50 years with his wife, Joann.

From testing new hazelnut varieties for Oregon State University, his alma mater, to donating nuts to the culinary program at Linn-Benton Community College, to mentoring rookie growers, Chambers is always willing to lend a hand.

Chambers has grown all of the new varieties released by OSU in the last 30 years in his orchard near Albany, Ore. Over the years he has probably tested about 150 different varieties in on-farm trials, Chambers said.

His assistance to OSU’s hazelnut breeding program arose out of loyalty to his alma mater.

“I graduated from OSU in horticulture in 1963 and I remained friends with the professors,” Chambers said.

His interest in the research also came from curiosity. “It’s interesting to see the variations between the varieties,” Chambers said. “I can take grafted trees on different rootstocks so I can see what effect the rootstock had on the scion of the tree, and how some of the weaker varieties can be improved with stronger rootstock.”

For the last 20 years Chambers has worked with OSU hazelnut breeder Shawn Mehlenbacher. Chambers’ orchard has provided one of the final testing grounds of a long, arduous journey in the life of a new hazelnut variety. Before reaching his soil, that tree once began as a seed, selected from a pool of 4,500 seeds, and has been pared down until Chambers could plant 10 seeds.

“It takes about 17 years from the time you make the original cross with the known parents until you release it as a variety,” Chambers said.

Part of the driving force behind that research into new varieties involves a growing desperation among those orchardists who had planted older varieties such as Barcelona. All legacy growers know the devastation that Eastern filbert blight has brought to Willamette Valley hazelnuts and Chambers is no exception.

In fact many older orchards have closed shop because of it. The older trees like Barcelona are more susceptible to this disease, which can spread through an orchard like wildfire. He will probably be planting new varieties soon and removing more susceptible varieties.

Partly because of the new, less susceptible varieties that Chambers helped to test, new growers are taking renewed interest in the crop throughout the valley.

“I’ve had several mentors over the years. Historically in the industry there is a lot of mentoring that goes on and people sharing ideas,” Chambers said. “I’m concerned that’s not going to be happening soon because there are fewer older growers. I can’t envision what’s coming down the road but there is a tremendous amount of interest in planting new varieties.”

Despite his worry for what the future holds, he has fielded calls from several new growers interested in learning more and is always happy to share advice. Part of the growing interest in hazelnuts also has to do with a strong market.

“Over the last several years, the price has been unbelievable. It’s been the best years of our production. After 50 years we’ve hit the jackpot,” Chambers said. “We didn’t really hit the jackpot, but we’re doing fine.”

Despite all its acreage, the orchard is really a small operation. The two main employees are Chambers and his wife, Joann. The partnership is so significant that the name of the farm is in fact W&J Orchards, named after the first initials of this husband and wife team. Joann does the office work and bookkeeping. They have no other full-time employees.

“She keeps me from planting more acres,” Chambers joked.

On the farm these days now Chambers is industriously spending his evenings spraying for Eastern filbert blight “and hoping it does good.” He’s also winding up pruning as well as tree and limb removal and getting ready to fertilize.

Chambers’ generosity does not only extend to his alma mater. He donates all the hazelnuts used by Linn-Benton Community College’s renowned culinary program. He has also donated money for scholarships and purchased equipment.

This is something the Albany grower has done gladly for the last 10 years.

“Years ago I was on the board and I’ve always been in support of the program,” Chambers said. “And I love to eat.”

The program holds a contest every April in which students come up with dishes that star hazelnuts and a panel of judges evaluates which dish tastes best. The Hazelnut Marketing Board awards cash prizes to the winning students.

Throughout all these experiences and despite Eastern filbert blight, the 75-year-old Chambers shows no signs of retiring soon. Orchards are in his blood, for better or worse, and this grower wouldn’t have it any other way.