Utilizing hybrid cultivars bred to thrive in the Northeast, the New York Tree Crops Alliance is working to establish a commercial market for New York-grown tree nuts.
Formed in 2019, the New York Tree Crops Alliance is a cooperative of 10 farmers focused on marketing and commercializing New York-grown hazelnuts, chestnuts and other tree nuts.
Jeff and Dawn Zarnowski have been planting and breeding hazelnuts for over 30 years at their farm, Z’s Nutty Ridge, in Cortland County.
Selling seeds and seedlings have long been the bulk of their business, but thanks to a new manufacturing facility the alliance is opening in Cortland and a bevy of hazelnut products developed at the Cornell Food Venture Center (CFVC), they and other New York Tree Crops Alliance members will soon see their products on supermarket shelves.
Bred for success
The hazelnuts grown at Z’s Nutty Ridge and other alliance members are hybrids of American and European hazelnuts that combine the hardiness of American hazelnuts with the yield and flavor of European hazelnuts, which are far more available in commercial markets. Their Photon Hazel Layer cultivar was awarded the first patent for a cold hardy hazelnut for the native regions of hazelnuts in the United States.
Jeff Zarnowski said he worked with the CFVC Pilot Plant to develop recipes and processes for roasting hazelnuts, pressing hazelnuts into oil, and milling the nuts into flour. Those products will soon be made at the alliance’s new processing facility in the Cortland Commerce Center, a multi-tenant industrial complex on the outskirts of Cortland that was formerly home to Smith Corona.
The New York Tree Crops Alliance worked with the New York State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture at Cornell AgriTech (CoE) to help set up the new facility. Zarnowski credited CoE Business Development Specialist Ed Maguire with visiting the new facility and offering guidance on the remodeling and equipment they needed for production, which saved the alliance money.
Coming soon to stores
Chang Chen, an assistant professor in Food Science at Cornell AgriTech who specializes in postharvest technology, including tree nuts, has also been advising the alliance on equipment purchases.
“We’re lucky that we have the help that we have from Cornell AgriTech,” Zarnowski said. “It’s an unbelievable facility.”
Zarnowski said he expects the first of the products under the New York Tree Crops Alliance brand to hit grocery store shelves by early 2024. Initial volumes will be small and be carried at a few local stores, such as P&C Fresh in Cortland and GreenStar Food Co+op in Ithaca, but Zarnowski said he expects New York Tree Crops Alliance products to expand into regional supermarket chains as production increases.
Earlier this year, Zarnowski completed the eCornell Food Product Development Certificate program through the Food Spark program, offered through the Cornell Agriculture and Food Technology Park (Tech Farm) and the CoE.
Later this fall, Zarnowski will work with the CFVC on making products with chestnuts, including chestnut milk, chestnut flour and a gluten-free chestnut pancake mix. American chestnuts, once common across the Eastern United States, were largely wiped out by chestnut blight. NYS Tree Crops Alliance members, like other commercial growers, now grow hybrids of American, Chinese, European and Japanese chestnuts.
Zarnowski also hopes to eventually produce and market bitternut hickory oil, which contrary to its name, is mild and nutty in flavor.
After decades of growing and breeding tree nuts, Zarnowski said he’s thrilled that New York-grown tree nuts are finally ready to hit supermarket shelves.
“You have no idea how happy I am after 30 years to see this,” he said.
Jacob Pucci is the marketing and communications coordinator for the New York State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture at Cornell AgriTech.
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