A researcher at Rutgers University may be the key to avoiding an impending hazelnut shortage — or, more important to many, a Nutella shortage.
The global demand for hazelnuts, needed to produce sweets such as Nutella and Ferrero Rocher candies, is constantly growing, and the limited international growth areas and long maturation time of the trees could mean doom for hazelnut lovers.
But Tom Molnar, who has been researching blight-resistant hazelnut trees since he was an undergraduate at Rutgers in New Brunswick, N.J., in 1996, is ready for the culmination of over 20 long years of research, which should soon roll out to farmers throughout the region, potentially changing the industry.
Many would be relieved to hear him say that at the moment, the shortage is "slightly blown out of proportion."
"It's a predicted shortage — really, because of Nutella and hazelnut candies," he said. "There's really not enough hazelnuts to have that demand be met as it grows, so the big candy companies are sort of scrambling, because they know that in five or six or seven years from now, there's not going to be enough hazelnuts to meet the demand."
That's where Rutgers comes in.
Most of the commercial growth of hazelnut trees is limited to regions of Eastern Europe and the northwestern United States.
The climate of the Northeast is hostile to hazelnut trees, not just because of temperatures but because of a fungus called the Eastern Filbert Blight.
The fungus grows beneath the bark and girdles the tree, stopping the flow of water and essentially killing the top portion, he said.
Molnar has crossed the world to find a way to bring to the Garden State and the Northeast hazelnuts that can resist these factors.
"I traveled as a graduate student and after all over Eastern Europe, where the native hazelnut grows, the European species, and collected seeds and brought them back here, and grew thousands of trees to find ones that were resistant," he said.
Molnar and his team initially found resistant plants, but the nut quality wasn't high enough to be considered a commercial crop. By crossing these resistant plants with high-quality varieties, such as those from Italy, they were able to find nuts of good size and flavor, he said.
"We're sort of pyramiding genes, or concentrating genes, so we have plants that should stick around for a long time," he said.
The native plant is more resistant to cold, allowing for growth in areas such as the Midwest or Upstate New York. But the goal is to be able to grow hazelnut trees even further north than that.
Canada, where Ferrero SpA — the Italian company responsible for Nutella and Ferrero Rocher, and with which Molnar has had a relationship for around a decade — has a production plant, is also looking to plant hazelnut trees in order to support the industry.
When farmers begin to grow Rutgers hazelnuts this year, they will pay a licensing fee to the university in order to support further research. Because farmers throughout the United States are inexperienced in growing hazelnuts, Molnar and his team will introduce and train them to work with the slow-growing trees.
To be considered of the highest quality, the nuts produced should be perfectly sized, round hazelnuts that blanch well — when roasted, they should shed their skin to become pure white, resembling roasted pearls. These deliver the sweetest taste and are the nuts that Ferrero looks for.
By providing hazelnut varieties that fit these specifications, farmers will get paid more per pound harvested.
Another plus for Rutgers hazelnuts?
"We don't spray any chemicals on the trees," Molnar said. "There's a world demand, but there's also a local demand for a high-quality sustainable crop."
That's why Molnar and his team continue to work year-round at Rutgers Gardens and Horticulture Research Farm No. 3. It's a passion project that, though reaching its culmination, is far from over.
"Rutgers has been supporting this project for 20 years. They've bought into the idea that we can actually have a big impact for our farmers in New Jersey and then also the Northeast, and since we're really close to releasing plants, I think everyone's excited, because they've been supporting us for so long," he said. "It means a lot."