The future of the world is nuts

Corn? Soybeans? It's time to put away yesterday's biofuel feedstocks and bow to a new contender: The incredibly oleaginous hazelnut.

Published August 14, 2007 8:48PM (EDT)

Move over, corn. Take a hike, soybeans. There's a new heavyweight contender pushing into the biofuel arena, and he goes by the name of ... filbert.

Also known as the mighty hazelnut. There are some subtle distinctions between the two nutty cousins, but not significant enough to distract from our main point. Which is, whatever you call 'em, filberts or hazelnuts: They rock! And heck, throw chestnuts into the mix, too.

Says Mark Shepard, a Wisconsin grower:

These crops are as versatile as corn and soybeans. They are a perfect industrial food ingredient. When we show that we can produce chestnuts and hazels as inexpensively as folks can grow corn and soybeans, your Cheetos will begin to be made from chestnuts and you won't even realize it. Same goes for soy products.

The perfect industrial food ingredient. Is there anything the world needs more? Fie on those who think biofuels will push Cheetos out of the affordable price range of America's hardworking middle class! The filbert will save us!

Let us glory in the potential of this far too often ignored nut.

Actually, instead of glorying ourselves, we will channel the enthusiasm of Philip Rutter, a farmer, hazelnut breeder, and the CEO and chief scientist of Badgersett Research Corp. in Minnesota. Rutter is convinced that hazelnuts will make a terrific biodiesel feedstock. As he enthused in a press release on Aug. 9, announcing plans to press oil from hazelnuts on Aug. 18 and run an engine on the fuel, "BRC has measured several of its NeoHybrids as having crop production potential nearly 300 percent that of soybeans, in terms of oil. "That's just huge!" says Rutter. "Soybean growers would throw parties if they could get a reliable 10 percent yield increase. We're at 300 percent!!!"

At the moment, soybean production is falling in the U.S. as cropland is diverted to corn by farmers motivated by historically high prices. But hazelnuts have advantages that soybeans and corn don't. They are perennials, which means you don't need to plow up your fields every year. And they're tough.

"These hybrid hazels are environmentally unstoppable here," Rutter says. "There's nothing the weather can do to even challenge them. They survive 40-below-zero temperatures untouched."

Environmentally unstoppable perfect industrial food ingredients. It's really too good to be true.

Much as we are prone to be suspicious of corporate propaganda, it's hard to spend any significant amount of time at the Badgersett Web site and not be infected by Rutter's enthusiasm for his beloved nuts. Because he is enthused about more than just oil content. Hazel-bush farming is a blessing upon the land, declares Rutter.

Feast your squirrelly eyes on Badgersett's manifesto, "The future of the world is nuts":

Agriculture is sacred. We don't usually perceive it that way, but think about it. "Yea, verily, I say unto you, Thou Shalt Not Endanger The Food Supply." We can argue endlessly about whether this or that actually does endanger the food supply, but the hidden underlying assumption is always there: NO ONE, NO ONE, NO ONE shall be allowed to harm the food supply for the humans.

The sanctity of Agriculture is unexamined, it is so basic. But one of the unexamined truths we are dealing with here is that Agriculture, as practiced today, is now the single most destructive technology on the planet.

What could possibly be more destructive than turning over the top 6 inches of the soil, twice a year, every year? Always the best land first, and more every year. (Yes, farming is an ancient and entirely honorable profession, but no one knows better than farmers that Agriculture today is in deep trouble.) It kills everything (except the crop), which is the point, of course. It also leaves the loose soil free to blow away in the wind or wash away in the rain, which it does. It corrodes the water supply in a dozen ways, including direct runoff of chemicals. Besides which, farmers are going broke even faster than usual.

Yes, but there is no REAL alternative, is there? In fact, now there is. We're it. Still in the early stages and still under development, true, but REAL FARMERS are already planting according to the new "woody agriculture", today. Nuts? Sure. ANYTHING you can do with soybeans, or corn, we can do with these new hybrid crops. Plus more -- all without losing basic productivity, while making an honest living, and with genuinely enormous environmental benefits....

In Woody Agriculture, crops would be planted only once in a lifetime. The use of woody perennials for agricultural staple commodities production would result in little or no use of tillage, as well as the presence of a permanent cover during both the growing and the dormant seasons. Not only would this lead to a vastly lower rate of soil loss and less runoff into water supplies and aquatic environments, but there would be a reduced need for the fossil fuels consumed in plowing and tilling. In addition, use of pesticides needed for the establishment of annual plants could be sharply reduced. A further important benefit would be the reduction of soil compaction, since far fewer trips through the fields with heavy equipment would be required.

Imagine, hazelnut bushes, from sea to shining sea. Next time you're munching on some Cheetos while driving your SUV, think: Woody agriculture made this possible.

Sayonara, soybeans.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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