Genomics research moving Ontario hazelnuts closer to production

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A genomics-based research project at the University of Guelph is moving the establishment of an Ontario hazelnut industry one step closer to reality.

Hazelnut development work has been underway in the province for about a decade, driven by farmers seeking new crops to grow and a large confectionary company keen to source their key ingredient locally.

Why it matters: Brantford-based Ferrero Canada, which manufactures Nutella chocolate hazelnut spread and Ferrero Rocher chocolates, offers local growers a market for 25,000 acres of hazelnut production.

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A key limiting factor of hazelnut production in the province has been a lack of cold-hardy cultivars that can survive the stress of an Ontario winter. The University of Guelph research, led by Prof. Praveen Saxena and funded through the Ontario Regional Priorities Partnership Program (ON-RP3), is using genomics to identify ways to help trees adapt so they can produce more and better quality hazelnuts.

“While most people thought it was Canada’s extreme temperatures limiting hazelnut production here, we have realized that it’s not the absolute temperature but the fluctuation of temperature during critical times that’s the real issue,” explains Saxena.

Hazelnut reproduction occurs from the end of January to the end of April and since the trees are already extremely sensitive to cold, significant temperature fluctuations at this critical time impacts nut development.

According to Saxena, another interesting discovery the project has yielded so far is that the temperature below ground is more important than the aerial temperature. That’s because most of the tree’s biology is controlled by the roots, and the subsoil is alive in the winter even when the tree itself is dormant.

“We want to understand how we can manage the trees through these temperature fluctuations,” he says. “At the end of this project, we will be able to recommend horticultural management practices that will enhance the general immunity of the tree and make it less susceptible to sudden impacts like temperature stress. We want simple solutions for growers so they can introduce newer varieties without too much trouble.”

Saxena and his team are testing different agronomic practices, including the effectiveness of indoleamines, natural plant growth regulators, to help make the trees more resilient and remove roadblocks to nut yield and quality. Those are the two factors, according to Ferrero Canada agronomist Barb Yates, that are critical for both growers and Ferrero.

“It was evident early on that these trees needed some more horticultural practices, like mulching or fertilizer for example, to help them survive and get established so that they will be productive as they mature,” she says.

“With Praveen’s help, we are slowly learning what those look like so a farmer can be successful and have the yield and quality that we need.”

There is currently no timeline for when Ferraro could start manufacturing with Ontario hazelnuts. There is little hazelnut breeding globally and no dedicated breeding program specific to Ontario’s climate, so available germplasm is limited. As well, since the industry is new to Ontario, all agronomic practices have had to be developed from scratch.

“This particular project is very dedicated to solving a specific issue, but overall, it’s a more integrated approach that involves improving the quality of germplasm, developing planting and horticultural practices, and improving yield and quality,” Saxena says.

In partnership with the Gosling Research Institute for Plant Preservation (GRIPP) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), a cryobank has been established to maintain varieties for long-term conservation.

Work is also underway on the development of bioreactors for rapid propagation of hazelnuts to help bring new trees into production faster.

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs is looking at disease and pest aspects of hazelnut production and has been a strong tech transfer partner for the emerging industry, notes Yates.

“We appreciate all the help from the staff at the OMAFRA research station in Simcoe, the Ontario Hazelnut Association, and from tree propagators,” she says. “There is a learning curve, but we believe very firmly that there is a role for trees in Ontario agriculture with benefits for growers, the Ontario economy and the environment.”