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California Drought May Benefit Oregon

Jacob Lewin

Credit Jacob Lewin

The agriculture industry in California is in the midst of its worst drought in decades and that may inadvertently be having a positive impact on Oregon. It's caused some growers to look north.  One Oregon crop that is being affected is hazelnuts, which are drawing record sales and prices. 

It takes a gallon of water--usually diverted from a river or aquifer--to grow a single California almond. But Oregon hazelnuts (sound of rain) get their water from the sky.  99-percent of the U.S. hazelnut crop comes from Oregon--mostly the Willamette Valley. Scott Conyers grows hazelnuts near St. Paul:

"This is just like hazelnut heaven around here."

Jump in his car and soon you'll see new hazelnut trees just about everywhere:

"There are people that have never grown a nut in their lives who are planting 300 acres around here. It's amazing to see the growth."

And part of that growth, says Oregon Hazelnut Marketing Board Executive Director Mike Klein, is due to the drought in California:

"It's leading to growers in California who have experience in tree nuts coming into the hazelnut business because there's water up here. Land is a little bit cheaper than in California."

According to Salem-based AgriBusiness Real Estate Services, out-of-state companies are aggressively acquiring thousands of  acres of farmland all over the Willamette Valley. At least four large companies have bought land recently and a fifth is in the process of closing a deal.  One of the growers, Munger Brothers, has purchased a couple of thousand acres from the now-bankrupt Evergreen Aviation in McMinnville.  The privately held San Joaquin Valley company is secretive about its plans, but its web site makes it clear that it is one of the largest nut and berry growers in the world.

The California drought is also indirectly benefiting Oregon.  Mike Klein says some manufacturers are substituting hazelnuts for almonds:

"We're seeing more interest in products with hazelnuts because of a little more stable supply and not any worries about a drought here."

Of course Oregon is not immune to climate change. But Portland State University Environmental Science Professor Alan Yeakley says the newcomers from California probably don't have to worry. Global warming won't mean less rainfall here:

"There are some studies that indicate it might increase overall, others that indicate it might be a small decrease. There's no real strong prediction that we'll be seeing a prolonged annual drought like they've been seeing in California and this, to some extent, is due to the position of the jet stream, Oregon relative to California, and that provides more water coming in from the Pacific Ocean."

Meanwhile demand for hazelnuts is growing with their use in everything from Nutella to Ben and Jerry's Hazed and Dazed ice cream to, this being Oregon, hazelnut beer.  Expect more Californians.

Reporter's Notebook: How this story got done    - by Jacob Lewin

Copyright 2015 KLCC

Jacob Lewin
Jacob Lewin is a veteran radio journalist whose work has been featured on Morning Edition, Marketplace, the Northwest News Network, and Oregon Public Broadcasting as well as KLCC-FM/Eugene .