Molnar, assistants have New Jersey on cusp of entering hazelnut market
EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Within a year, farmers in the Garden State could be growing and perhaps even selling “Jersey Fresh” hazelnuts, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Thomas Molnar and his teams of graduate and undergrad students.
Through a rigorous program of cross-breeding, Molnar and his team have come up with disease-resistant varieties of hazelnut trees, and already several New Jersey farmers have them growing at their farms, Molnar said from Rutgers’ University’s Horticulture Farm No. 3.
With all the rain in the 2018 growing season, Molnar said “we did get some minor afflictions because we don’t spray any insecticides or fungicides on the trees, we don’t want to prevent any diseases or insects, it’s a breeding program, we want to see what survives and what gets impacted.
“We’ve been breeding for resistance to Eastern Filbert Blight,” he said, noting hazelnut trees in Oregon and other parts of the United States aren’t affected by this disease like they are here in the Garden State.
Interestingly, Rutgers’ hazelnut research program was launched by renowned turf grass expert, the late C. Reed Funk. Molnar said Funk was keenly interested in ways to feed a growing world population in the face of diminishing farmland. At 18, Molnar began working with Funk.
“He was a visionary,” Molnar said. “He started all this in 1996, and I worked with him as he transitioned into nut trees.
“Initially it wasn’t just hazelnuts, it was several different species of walnuts, and other types of nuts.”
After about 10 years, he retired and moved to Utah. Funk died on Oct. 4, 2012.
“He was looking at nut trees as a food source to expand the food supply, and the idea here was to take a crop that has never been grown here and get it going,” he said. Hazelnuts fit right in to that mission, Molnar said, as they don’t require much spraying or irrigation and have several health benefits.
“That’s what really got him excited, the nutritional aspects of the nuts.”
Through years of work, Molnar and his teams cross-bred disease-resistant varieties that also handle New Jersey winters and summer time humidity well.
“We’ve picked four varieties and at least one nursery is starting to propagate them, a tissue culture nursery in Oregon,” he said, noting New Jersey has no such lab that can propagate woody plants.
“What we can do to propagate is take this little tip and grow it in a petri dish, so we’re not genetically modifying anything, we’re just getting it to branch and do a plant tissue culture-micro propagation,” he said.
“We can make thousands of little trees out there and send them back here to our nurseries and farms in New Jersey,” Molnar added, noting that Oregon has a long-established hazelnut industry.
“We expect our farmers will be growing lots more trees by 2020,” he said, and several farmers and nurseries are doing test plantings of the newer blight-resistant trees.
For it to be practical for most farmers, they need to grow about 1,000 trees at a time, as most farmers don’t want to put in just a few trees, Molnar said.
“The nice thing about hazelnuts is you don’t have to harvest them by hand, they drop onto the ground and you can use machines to pick them up,” he said. He cautioned that raccoons and other pests have gotten into some of the hazelnut groves and even crept into greenhouses used for drying the nuts.
Most of the trees at the research farm are eight-year-old trees, he said, and thanks to the success of the project, Rutgers’ School of Environmental and Biological Sciences gave him the okay to purchase specialized harvesting and shelling machines from a manufacturer in Italy.
Aside from trees at the research farm, there are also trees growing across the road in nearby Rutgers Gardens and about five acres of hazelnuts near the horse farm off College Farm Road and Route 1, as well as a sizeable plot at Rutgers’ Cream Ridge facility, off Route 539.
“With Dr. Funk’s clout, we were able to plant trees any place that was open,” Molnar said.
Molnar was raised in the central Pennsylvania town of Jersey Shore, and had an aunt who worked at Rutgers. He began spending summers working with Dr. Funk while still in college at Indiana University in Pennsylvania.
He transferred to Cook College at Rutgers and completed his undergrad work there.
He commenced graduate work with Funk and hazelnut research in 2000 and completed his Ph.D. in 2006.
After three years of school at Indiana University, he said, “Dr. Funk convinced me I should transfer here. I worked 40 and 50 hours a week with him. I liked working with hazelnuts in particular, mostly because it only takes about four years for them to produce nuts, so you see action a lot more quickly.”
Molnar noted with walnuts and pecans, growers don’t see results until seven, eight or nine years after planting trees.
Besides the Eastern Filbert Blight, hazelnut trees grown here have few other pests or diseases, he added. Another benefit of working with hazelnut trees is they’re wind pollinated, he said, dropping the expense of bees for pollination.
Now, Molnar and his crews oversee hazelnut growth and production on more than 5,000 trees in Cream Ridge and at the New Brunswick campus.
As for the near future, Molnar said efforts to commercialize hazelnuts as a new crop in the Garden State continue.
“We already have 15 farms around the state that are interested enough, some have already put in these pollen producing trees, and we have a list of others, more than 30 farms around the Northeast that are ready to plant trees.
“And our ag Extension agents are getting trained on hazelnuts,” he said.
“We want to be able to demonstrate the harvester, the cleaner and the sheller to the agents and interested farmers. We already have inquiries from restaurants in New York and north Jersey. If we build a demand, it will all fall into place.”