The Northwest's edible treasure

High atop a tractor, farmer Peter McDonald emerges from the dense green canopy of his 75-acre hazelnut orchard along the Willamette River near Wilsonville, south of Portland. He hauls a wood tote piled with 1,300 pounds of just-gathered nuts.

“During the harvest in October, we work 12- to 14-hour days ― longer if rain is expected,” McDonald says. He and his son, James, mechanically sweep the ripe nuts that have fallen to the orchard floor into windrows. Then a giant machine sucks up the nuts and shoots them into the totes. At the processing plant, they’re washed and dried, then sent to be shelled if their intended market requires it.

First planted in 1858, hazelnuts from the Willamette Valley account for 99 percent of the U.S. commercial crop. In a good year, McDonald and his fellow farmers together bring in as many as 38,000 tons.

McDonald finds the varying beauty of the orchard through the year irresistible ― especially in January, when the trees bloom and pollinate, and brilliant yellow catkins appear on the naked branches. “It looks like someone put up a zillion Christmas tree ornaments,” he says. Besides, “it’s fun being the brunt of all the nut jokes in the world.” No amount of kidding, though, can change his opinion: “When they’re roasted, hazelnuts are the best nuts by far!”

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