The growing popularity of Nutella in recent years has driven up demand for the hazelnut, far more than the world can supply. But help is on the way, thanks to some innovative plant and agricultural science from Rutgers biologist Tom Molnar.
“The demand for hazelnuts is so high that there is no surplus of nuts produced, and that makes companies very nervous,” said Molnar, who heads the hazelnut tree breeding program at the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. Part of the reason the hazelnut is in such short supply is the limited regions at which the tree can grow, according to Molnar. Most sold commercially are grown in Turkey and the Wilmete Valley of Oregon.
Yet Molnar and his team have developed a breed of hazelnut which can be commercially mass produced in New Jersey and the northeast United States. Molnar’s research, now 20 years in the making, is revolutionary in that the tree is resistant to the eastern filbert blight fungus, which until now was the biggest obstacle to growing the hazelnut in the northeast, according to university officials. “We are getting so close to being able to get a new agricultural industry off the ground in New Jersey,” Molnar said. Ferrero, the Italian company which produces Nutella, has taken note of Molnar’s’ research and procured a working relationship with the professor since 2008. Twice a year, company officials visit the Rutgers research plots for updates on the work.
“We have been carefully observing the progress of the program managed by Professor Molnar and we strongly believe in his plans and results,” said Michele Pisetta, a manager of sustainability at Ferrero. “At Ferrero, we hope the development of new varieties Professor Molnar is working on will be successful and open new areas for planting hazelnut worldwide.”
Annually, production of Nutella and other Ferrero projects uses up about 25 percent, or 100,000 tons, of the world’s supply of hazelnut. To develop this new hazelnut crop, Molnar and his team traveled throughout Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Crimea in search of a plant that could survive in cooler climates and be disease resistant.
The process involved thousands upon thousands of crossbreeding combinations until they came up with the right variety. Rutgers also had some help from Oregon State University, which provided Rutgers with pollen from its own research program. Rutgers’ hazelnut breeding program was launched by C. Reed Funk, a researcher who also developed more resilient varieties of turf grass at the university. The turf was used by Yankee Stadium and the National Mall in Washington, D.C., earning millions for the university. Some of the $60 million the turf brought to Rutgers was used towards hazelnut research, according to university officials. Currently, Molnar is aiming to get the new hazelnut tree released within the next two or three years. If all goes well, then within a few years, the next nutella jar you buy could be locally grown right here in the Garden State.