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One Man's Quest To Protect A Rare Kind Of Hazelnut Tree

Apr 11, 2019
Originally published on April 12, 2019 11:06 am
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Demand for hazelnuts is on the rise globally. That's due in no small part to the popularity of products like Nutella. But the U.S. has remained a relatively small player in the global hazelnut industry. Darius Rafieyan and Stacey Vanek Smith of the podcast The Indicator From Planet Money brings us this story of one man's decades-long quest to change that.

DARIUS RAFIEYAN, BYLINE: I first met biologist Tom Molnar in his office at the Rutgers University Ornamental Field Lab. He was surrounded by these big plastic bins just filled with thousands upon thousands of hazelnuts.

TOM MOLNAR: For example, here's one that has ridges and lumps. And to me, that's kind of an ugly looking hazelnut.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Hazelnuts have a problem. More than 70 percent of the world's hazelnuts come from one place - come from Turkey. And that, of course, leaves Nutella lovers everywhere very vulnerable.

RAFIEYAN: The United States does have a small hazelnut industry in Oregon, but that doesn't come close to meeting global demand. The East Coast would be perfect for growing these trees, but there's one big problem.

MOLNAR: We would have had a hazelnut industry in the northeast if it wasn't for Eastern filbert blight.

RAFIEYAN: Eastern filbert blight - it's a fungal disease. It's native to North America. And it grows beneath the bark of hazelnut trees.

MOLNAR: So as we look down in here, you'll see that there's little pustules. So those are like little mushrooms. Those are the fruiting bodies, where the spores will actually be ejected from and spread to other trees.

RAFIEYAN: This fungus has been Tom's sworn nemesis for 23 years.

VANEK SMITH: Hazelnuts are this kind of miracle crop. They can grow without irrigation, without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. The only problem they needed to solve was Eastern filbert blight.

RAFIEYAN: And so Tom figured that somewhere out there the gene for disease resistance that he needed was hiding. So he set out to find that gene. For seven years, Tom traveled all over the native hazelnut range collecting specimens. And this was not your typical horticultural fieldwork. Once, while crossing into Ukraine with 80 pounds of nuts in his suitcase, he even got shaken down by the local police.

MOLNAR: They start screaming at me. They have guns. And this is silly, but at the same time, I had a suitcase full of all the nuts that I so desperately did not want to lose.

RAFIEYAN: But you were more worried about the nuts than the money.

MOLNAR: I was very nervous about the nuts. Those were my babies.

RAFIEYAN: After years of collecting all this genetic material, he came back to New Jersey, and he got to work breeding.

VANEK SMITH: Eventually, after years of failures, Tom did it. He created a tree strong enough to resist the blight.

RAFIEYAN: Does he have a name?

MOLNAR: Seven twenty-five (laughter). This is H3RZP25. So we call him 725.

VANEK SMITH: Tom sees this as the start of a whole new industry on the East Coast.

RAFIEYAN: If it takes off, that could make Tom a very, very rich man. But, you know, he says he didn't spend 20 years of his life sifting through hazelnuts just for the money.

MOLNAR: Ever since I was young, I wanted to do something that had a positive impact beyond just my individual life. And I think that's what drew me to tree breeding. Plants can sort of live on forever. So if you select the right variety, that could be around way after you're gone. But maybe your grandchildren can grow that in your yard and think about that, you know, their grandfather actually selected that plant.

RAFIEYAN: Darius Rafieyan.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.