Our neighbors Sue Chen and Paul Ridgway with their Fall 2020 crop of organically-grown, home-processed hazelnuts
We love stories with lots of threads that all get tied up at the end. We love meeting Yamhill neighbors as passionate and daring as us, who up-ended successful careers to start farming in Yamhill. We love rebels who buck the conventional way of doing things. We love people who seem quiet and normal on the outside but have a surprising, daring, outrageous life on the inside. We love stories where farming leads to a love story. And we love traditionally farmed, authentic local goodness, especially when it involves heirloom varietals and organic farming methods. So it’s been a special pleasure getting to know Sue and Paul. And yes this post delivers all of the above.
Sue Chen and Paul Ridgway in Yamhill
It started unremarkably enough: Sue Chen was just one of many visitors we have had at our
Kookoolan Farms Airbnb cottage, spending three days with us in July 2017. She seemed nice but but busy, interesting but not around much. Turns out she was buying a farm less than two miles away, right here in Yamhill! She described her decision to buy a farm in Huffington Post.
Turns out we knew her soon-to-be husband separately, too. Paul Ridgway owned the specialty plumbing supply company in Lafayette, Oregon, where for years we have been buying the specialty irrigation equipment for our low-water-use vegetable gardens and fruit orchard. A few months after Sue’s house was livable, the well pump died. Sue says, “I didn’t know what to do. No one had a clue as to what happened or how to fix it. In desperation, my builder reached out to Paul’s company to try to fix or figure this out. Cascade Water was able to secure a new pump and replace it. The employee taking care of it was delayed on another job and no one else available so Paul - very begrudgingly - came out to install the new pump … and the rest is history. So, I came out to Yamhill to be a farmer and I also found love in so many ways.”
Loving the Flavor of Hazelnuts
You probably first tasted the flavor of hazelnuts in Nutella spread. Or possibly Frangelico liqueur, or more recently in flavored coffee creamers. Or maybe those fancy Belgian chocolates with the hazelnut flavoring. But did you know that the first two ingredients in Nutella are sugar and palm oil? Homemade “Nutella” is gluten-free, paleo, and keto friendly, and requires only five ingredients. Think of it as a healthy superfoods Fat Bomb. At Kookoolan Farms we are partial to erythritol, but you can substitute your preferred sweetener. Homemade hazelnut milk requires only three ingredients! Sue’s website has great videos for making hazelnut milk, “nutella,” and more!
Oregon's Hazelnut Industry
Oregon’s Willamette Valley produces 99% of the total U.S. crop, and about 35% of all worldwide production (Turkey is largest at 70% of world production.) Filberts and Hazelnuts are exactly the same thing, and old Oregonians still staunchly and condescendingly correct any use of “hazelnut” to “filbert.” But in 1981, The Oregon Filbert Commission made an official decision to conform to the world standard, and began officially calling them hazelnuts. The nut has been part of the human diet for thousands of years; according to a manuscript found in China from the year 2838 B.C., the filbert took its place among the five sacred nourishments God bestowed on human beings. In olden times, the filbert was used as a medicine and a tonic. More than 1,800 years ago, Greek physician Dioscorides emphasized the properties of the filbert: “It cures chronic coughing if pounded filbert is eaten with honey. Cooked filbert mixed with black pepper cures the cold. If the ointment produced by mashing burnt filbert shells in suet is smeared on the head where hair does not grow due to normal baldness or to some disease, hair will come again.” We make no such promises but it must have worked for someone!
Large conventionally-farmed hazelnut orchard
The first hazelnut tree in Oregon was planted in 1858 by retired Hudson’s Bay Company employee, Sam Strictland in Scottsburg, Oregon. In 1903, George Dorris of Springfield, Oregon, started the first commercial orchard with more than 200 “Barcelona” variety hazelnut trees. “Barcelona” is the most prominent variety grown in Oregon today, although there is also a variety named “Dorris” after this family. The Dorris Ranch is now a living history filbert farm, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, with thousands of visitors annually.
Eastern Filbert Blight has killed many of the early hazelnut orchards; they are mostly being replanted with “Polly O” hybrid trees developed at Oregon State University to be blight resistant. The new trees are very uniform in appearance, disease resistant, and have a larger nut size. They’re grown in vast monocultures. The modern hybrid varieties are not nearly so aromatic and flavorful as the old heirloom varieties, and ironically these new trees are treated with loads of chemicals. Generally orchards are combined with rye grass for production of grass seed. The grass is treated many times during the season with herbicides, and the trees are treated with herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides. In the past ten years, the number of acres devoted to hazelnuts has soared from 10,000 to nearly 100,000, with nearly all of that additional acreage planted in the new hybrid and farmed conventionally (AKA with heavy chemical inputs). It’s virtually impossible to find organic Oregon hazelnuts, and not only due to farming practices but also processing. Almost the entire Willamette Valley crop is processed at one gigantic facility just outside Donald, Oregon.
Harvesting Love Hazelnuts - the nuts fall from the trees to the ground on their own, and the harvester sweeps them to the center and then vacuums them up!
Which brings us back to Sue.
From the beginning, Sue has been determined to farm an heirloom variety (she selected “Yamhill”), and to do it organically. The organic certification process takes three years, and Sue is in Year #2. Just as with meat, it turns out that processing is an issue for small-scale nut production as well. The problem is that there is a new very large hazelnut processing facility in Dayton, but the production methods are not organic, and there is no way to keep track of any one farmer’s nuts. So Sue and Paul found an antique piece of equipment, Paul repaired and restored it, and they are processing their own nuts, washed only in water. Total harvest for 2020 was just 5,000 pounds, but the young trees will produce more this year. Sue brought us a 2.5-pound sample bag, and we have been just blown away by the flavor difference. Her nuts are tender and flavorful, highly aromatic, with a long silky aromatic finish that fills your sinuses with chocolate aromas for a good couple of minutes after eating a single nut.
Sue with young orchard tree (left). Ripe hazelnuts naturally fall to the ground on their own, they just have to be swept up to harvest!
Sue says, “I am beyond thrilled and honored to have my Hazelnuts at Kookoolan Farms. As a self-professed stalker and fan, and even stayed at their lovely B and B while my home was under construction, it is a dream come true to offer Love Hazelnuts to the Kookoolan Farms family. My hazelnuts are grown just a few miles away at Cow Pig Dragon Farm alongside over 200 unique varietals of trees, herbs, shrubs, vegetables, flowers and a very busy colony of bees. From the day the filbert trees were planted, they were given the love and support to thrive, with the priority always on the heath of the trees and environment, over crop yield production. All of the work done with the teamwork of family. As I ventured on the Hazelnut journey, I fell in love with this loveliest of nuts and the people that came into my life … thus, they named themselves - Love Hazelnuts.”
Yamhill hazelnut farmer Sue Chen, diving with sharks!
Sue is also a deep sea diver who seeks out sharks! Sue is an active wildlife conservationist who rapidly found herself on the Board and as the spokesperson for [SharkSavers](https://wildaid.org/shark-savers/) right at the time that California was voting to make possession of a shark fin a crime. Her day job and her passion came together in helping wounded veterans regain a sense of normalcy and purpose through diving, and Blue Pride was born. Her day job? At age 23 she founded