New Jersey Ag News
Molnar lauds walnut trees for high sustainable qualities
By JANE PRIMERANO
NEW BRUNSWICK — Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told Steve Croft of “60 Minutes” his walnut-farming father told him he had been around nuts so much Washington, D.C., the farm was the perfect place for him to work.
Panetta grew up in northern California — the region of the United States with the most nut trees — but that doesn’t mean the East Coast isn’t a good place for them, Thomas Molnar, assistant professor of plant biology and pathology at Rutgers told a crowded classroom at the NOFA-NJ Winter Conference.
Molnar didn’t request a larger room because he didn’t know how popular his talk on nut trees for the northeast would be, he said.
Nut trees have the potential to produce a sustainable high-quality product on land not suitable for annuals.
Molnar became an expert on nut trees almost by accident.
A turf grass experiment surprisingly made money and the faculty member running that, Dr. Reed Funk, started the nut tree program.
They planted trees on any of the Rutgers farms with excess space, Molnar said.
More than 35,000 trees were planted in the program called the Underutilized Perennial Food Crop Genetic Improvement Program.
They included black and Persian walnuts, pecans, heartnuts, hickories, chestnuts, almonds and hazelnuts.
“There is a great potential for organic systems,” Molnar said. He said the project is developing disease-resistant and insect resistant strains based on their own genetics.
The three species that have the most potential on the East Coast, hazelnuts, heartnuts and black walnuts.
Heartnuts are the least familiar of the three. Native to Japan they also grow well in the Great Lakes region.
A hardy tree, it thrives in soils from heavy to light and matures the fastest of any nut tree. It produces nuts in clusters, sometimes as many as 10 per cluster,
Another advantage to the grower is they bear in three to five years. An advantage to the consumer is they come out of the shell in wholes or in halves.
Black walnut trees are familiar as a native Eastern North American tree cultivated for hits high-grade wood.
Found naturally in riparian zones, it thrives best in fertile lowland soils with a high water table. Crops of nuts come in most heavily in alternate years.
Molnar focused primarily on hazelnuts, a tree that was successful in the school’s plantings. It takes four to five years for nuts, he said. Hazelnuts have a wide generic diversity.
It’s the fifth most important tree in the world.
Some 70 percent come from Turkey and another 18 percent come from Italy. Only 4 percent are grown in the United States.
Some 90 percent of hazelnuts are used in candy and baked goods, Molnar said.
The early colonists brought over hazelnuts, but they got Eastern Filbert Blight.
Later a disease-resistant strain was developed. The trees in the Rutgers study developed good kernels, round, that blanche well. Almost all taste good, Molnar said.
Hazel trees like deep, well-drained soils.
They should be planted 10 feet between each, Molnar said. Mulching is a good idea, he said. Weed control is essential for the first two or three years and can be done by hand, he said.
Once the trees get big, the ground is shaded and weeds aren’t a problem. The trees are wind pollinated.
He suggested getting at least three different varieties.
Deer bother the tress when they are young, but the mature trees only have only one serious threat, Molnar said.
Squirrels tend to pick the nuts about two weeks before humans think they are ready for harvest, and chipmunks often clean up the nuts the squirrels drop.
Molnar suggested “the best deterrent is a dog or a herd of mean cats.”