Grower Highlight: Rich and Nancy Birkemeier

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For nearly 50 years, Rich and Nancy Birkemeier have been on the cutting edge of the hazelnut industry. What began as a small orchard purchased by Rich’s father near Canby, Oregon, has become a haven for hazelnut innovation that remains true to its humble roots.

Rich’s father purchased an old Barcelona orchard in 1962, when Rich was in high school. Rich had always been interested in farming and spent his childhood helping out at his grandparents’ farm. Hazelnuts were not a part of these earlier incarnations of the farm, but they would prove to be the lasting legacy.

Rich met Nancy in college and the two soon wed; Nancy grew up in eastern Oregon, well removed from the hazelnuts of the Willamette Valley, but she ambitiously joined her husband in operating the business.

The business grew in 1974 when Rich and Nancy took over his grandparents’ farm and eventually converted the acreage to hazelnuts. They found steady success until the most catastrophic event in the Oregon hazelnut industry struck their farm—the arrival of Eastern Filbert Blight (EFB) in 1986. The blight decimated much of the industry. Researchers and growers scrambled to find solutions. Thankfully, the Oregon State University breeding program had begun extensive research on blight-resistant varieties.

Dr. Shawn Mellenbacher worked with the Birkemeiers, and they were one of the first families to graft a potentially EFB-resistant variety to replace their blighted Ennis orchard. While not completely resistant, the numbered variety—later known as Lewis—did have better tolerance for the disease. However, this was just the beginning of a valuable partnership for the farm and the entire industry.

As the industry rushed to find answers, Rich was selected to be part of the committee that helped get hazelnuts into micropropagation. He was given permission by Oregon State to take one of the newly propagated varieties and grow it out into a commercial planting; this variety is now known as Yamhill. The Birkemeiers credit their success and the success of the American hazelnut industry to the diligent work of the Oregon State University breeding program and research projects.

In addition to their work on the farm, the Birkemeiers have been dedicated to the growth and cooperation of the overall industry. They also run one of the preeminent hazelnut nursery operations and are propagating EFB-resistant trees released by Oregon State. In 1978, they partnered with two other families to found Willamette Hazelnut Growers, one of the industry’s leading processors. Furthermore, Rich served as the president of Nut Growers Society, spent 18 years on the Oregon Hazelnut Commission and has been recognized by his peers as Grower of the Year.

The Birkemeiers have not only witnessed decades of hazelnut history, they are setting the stage for its future.