Woody Agriculture

The Future of the World ... is Nuts

There is lots of serious discussion in the political and agronomical theaters about how wonderful it will be when we are growing more of our diesel fuel. Usually soybeans are cited as the favorite source.

One of the things people 'know' is that woody plants could never produce as much seed as the annual crops, like soybeans, that are bred for it.

This is likely true of wild trees, but their priority is always

If only we could do better... Then the trees and bushes in our woody farms would reduce the threat of global warming both by binding up carbon in woody tissues and by reducing our dependence on fossil feul. Coincidentally, those trees and bushes would make a better set of habitats for other species, too.

Well, I am doing better. I hybridize species to generate diversity for domestication. I now have an immense, artificial, hybrid swarm of nut-bearing varieties: three species in a swarm of hazels; five species in a swarm of chestnuts.

This new breeding technique is enormously powerful. Some variations are totally off the charts. Using hybrid swarms, it's easy — easy — to find individuals with much heavier flower set, much more precocious flowering, etc.

Woody Agriculture works; vastly faster than I guessed, with wild ramifications I never expected when I started. With hybrid hazel plants that exist already and with demonstrated technology, I can outproduce soybeans in Minnesota. Based on initial trials, I estimate that plant hybrid G-008-S (a first cycle selection from a complex population of Corylus americana x Corylus avellana hybrids) will yield over 8,000 lbs/acre of dry whole nuts; or over 3,000 lbs/acre of dry kernel. Average US soybean production is only about 1,200 lbs/acre.

My current generation time for breeding hazels averages three years; record time is one year. My average for chestnuts is two years; record time is two generations/year. NO KIDDING.

World wide, commercial hazelnuts now tend to ripen in late September, into October. But hybrids from my swarm include a couple of breeding lines that produce ripe and normal hazelnuts in late July. Unusual times of maturation may mean escape from some pests. And they make adaptation to different microclimates a cinch.

Another hybrid tree, oil palm; can be a full order-of-magnitude more productive than soybeans. And they're already a real industry in the tropics where, today, nine million hectares are in production.

I've been saying for some years that woody plants have the potential to be more productive than annual grains. The oilpalm people have done it. And they acheived their big jump in productivity by using species-hybrid palms.

The woody production is so much higher simply because the plants are woody. In the case of oilpalm, because they are tropical, their leaves are at work 365 days a year.

Woody production is working for me, too, and so far, without any insecticide or fungicide. No pesticides, at all! My bushes are full of frogs and spiders that do the pest control.

Fertilizer is necessary. But the huge, deep, permanent root systems of the hazels means that no fertilizer escapes. And I mean none. After applying 200 lbs of Nitrogen/acre, I measure Nitrogen concentration at a depth of 24 inches. The result? Zero parts per million!

My hybrid hazels are growing in Minnesota, part of the northern corn belt. They show that even in temperate situations, woody agriculture has many advantages.

Philip A. Rutter
Badgersett Research Corporation
RR 1, Box 141
Canton, MN 55922-9740
Co-founder & Past-president
American Chestnut Foundation