There is little that is truly natural about modern agriculture. Most crop systems involve mechanically tearing open the soil, planting crops that are not usually native to a region, and caring for, harvesting, and processing these crops with methods that are typically energy- and water-intensive and sometimes chemical-intensive. Modern industrialized agriculture is hugely productive of food and fiber, but when poorly managed, it can do major harm to soils, remove wetlands and forests, cause grasslands to become deserts, deplete groundwater, reduce biodiversity, and pollute air, water, and land. Efforts to make agriculture more sustainable include organic and related farming systems and the growing permaculture movement.
Permaculture is a system of agricultural design that is based on plants and growing patterns that are similar to those of natural ecosystems in a given region. An important feature of natural ecosystems is their relative permanence. Unlike typical agricultural systems based on annual crops such as grains, beans, and vegetables, and livestock fed by these annual crops, natural ecosystems do not need human attention and input. Permaculture attempts to mimic natural systems while at the same time producing crops valuable to humanity. Permaculture crops are typically long-lived or even perennial. Such crops can include perennial grains, such as those under development at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas: https://landinstitute.org/ . Other relatively perennial food crops are trees that bear fruits and nuts. A promising nut crop for New Jersey is the Hazelnut. Hazelnuts can produce more protein and more vegetable oil per acre than corn or soybeans. Once established, hazelnuts can thrive for years with little need for pesticides and other inputs. There is a strong demand for hazelnuts by consumers, including large food processors; they could prove to be a high value crop in New Jersey.
Most hazelnuts available today are grown in Europe, and are varieties of Corylus avellana. Unfortunately, when these varieties are planted in the Eastern U.S. they typically succumb to eastern filbert blight, an endemic fungus disease to which the native North American hazelnut, Corylus americana, is resistant. Although the native hazelnut readily grows in this region, the nuts it produces are small, difficult to shell, and have little flavor. The trees in this planting have been bred to resist filbert blight and grow vigorously in this region and to also produce large and tasty nuts that should be highly marketable. They have been chosen from disease-resistant stock selected from thousands of Corylus avellana trees and grafted onto hardy rootstocks under the direction of Dr. Thomas Molnar, of Rutgers University’s Department of Plant Biology and Pathology. Rutgers University donated the trees in TCNJ’s Hazelnut Planting in 2017 as part of Rutgers’ effort to evaluate the success of hazelnuts in differing environments in New Jersey. More on the Rutgers program is available at http://agproducts.rutgers.edu/hazelnuts/