Island man defies odds by growing warm climate crop of hazelnuts in Bonshaw

Hazelnuts grow well in Turkey, Italy, and British Columbia, all areas with much more-temperate climes than PEI, so people thought Bill Glen was crazy for wanting to grow them here.

But what started as an experiment has turned into a hazelnut orchard in the “alpine region” of Bonshaw Hills.

Bill, a retired forestry worker, has been experimenting with hazelnuts for the last 14 years. While in forestry, he managed a tree improvement program that focused on seed orchards; an intensively-managed orchard of specifically arranged trees.

“That’s effectively what this is,” he said. “It started off as an experiment of trying out which varieties [of hazelnuts] will grow on PEI.”

So Bill and his wife Elizabeth “set up initially as a research plot.”

Bill knew he wanted to try his hand at growing something. He knew fruit would be a challenge because once you’ve got fresh fruit, it has to be handled and sold quickly.

“Whereas nuts, they are pretty hard to hurt,” he laughed. If stored properly in a cool, dry place, hazelnuts will keep for years.

They now maintain roughly 700 hazelnut trees on four acres. The trees are planted on a sloping lot and a gravity-fed irrigation system is in place for most of the orchard. He has a rain barrel in place across the road at a large commercial property and that rainwater is piped across to a larger barrel and subsequently piped to the trees.

A hazelnut will generally fall out of its husk when ripe Photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

Like much of farming, the biggest challenge seems to be proper timing and working with the weather. “Each year is different, you just don’t quite know what’s going to happen,” Bill said.

It was an unbelievably slow spring, with the trees off to a late start, as the leaves were still forming on the trees in June, and typically one starts to see the nut forming in July. By mid-late September each year, the hazelnuts are ready to begin harvesting. They sell their harvests at local farmers’ markets and some retail outlets like Riverview Market.

“Every year is different, unfortunately, but it’s alright, it’s a learning curve,” Elizabeth said.

“We haven’t had huge, huge crops, cause we are still very much trying to get the right pollinators for the right varieties and so on,” Bill said. “Variety X will not pollinate itself, so you need variety Y to pollinate it.”

There needs to be two different pollinator varieties to properly pollinate a tree. “The challenge is, some are not genetically compatible to pollinate.” The other thing is timing, Bill said. Some varieties have flower early, and some release pollen late, and they miss each other. “So it’s a bit more complicated than you first think,” Bill said.

“It’s a really neat project because you know, you’re doing something that, in theory, you shouldn’t be able to do,” Elizabeth said. “Obviously with a bit of climate change and so on, we can do it but we’re on the edge.”

Bill Glen is happy to call himself a PEI Nutter submitted photo

The Glens would like to consistently produce something that hasn’t been produced on PEI before. But consistency is the thing they haven’t quite hit yet.

“We’ll have a really good crop one year and then you think, ‘oh, well, we’ll have an even better crop next year,’ and then something happens and you don’t. So it’s been unreliable in that way,” Elizabeth explained.

Unfortunately the wet, cold spring, and poor pollination resulted in a small crop this year, and post-tropical storm Dorian claimed most of it. Let’s hope next season will be more fruitful, and we can enjoy some beautiful Island-grown hazelnuts.

About Brenlee Brothers

Brenlee is an earthy Islander who loves beauty, and the smell of salt water on the wind. As a seeker, she loves to learn and explore new places; all the while, finding comfort in a slow, simple life. A lover of house plants, herbs and getting her hands dirty; whether it be in the earth, or by sculpting clay, she is constantly discovering new passions as she delves deeper into her Self. Heart based, and community minded, while drinking the sweet nectar of solitude. Brenlee has kept a journal since she was a child, and as a graduate of Holland College Journalism she is grateful to practice the art of storytelling through her writings in Salty.

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