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POLK COUNTY -- At the end of September, Lance Kirk could stroll beneath the canopy of his hazelnut orchard near the end of Wigrich Road and absorb the almost serene sound of filberts dropping naturally from the trees.

Photo by Pete Strong

October 16, 2012

POLK COUNTY -- At the end of September, Lance Kirk could stroll beneath the canopy of his hazelnut orchard near the end of Wigrich Road and absorb the almost serene sound of filberts dropping naturally from the trees.

"It's kind of cool," Kirk said. "You can hear them bouncing everywhere. You look on the floor and watch them pile up."

That was then. Now that harvest is under way at Kirk Family Filberts, depending on where you stand, you're lucky to see or hear anything.

Huge clouds of dust billow through trees as sweepers and harvest machines separate nuts from leaves and debris while collecting the precious cargo.

Workers driving forklifts, meanwhile, dump nut-filled totes -- each weighing about 1,300 pounds -- at the Kirks' processing facility. All of them wear protective earmuffs to

A sweeper makes its way through the orchard at Kirk Family Filberts, moving the fallen nuts into neat rows so that they can be collected and taken to the processing plant.

Photo by Pete Strong

A sweeper makes its way through the orchard at Kirk Family Filberts, moving the fallen nuts into neat rows so that they can be collected and taken to the processing plant.

spare them from what sounds like the world's largest washing machine -- filled with ball bearings and cranked up to 11.

"You would go deaf without these," Kirk said with a laugh. "I'm wearing them 13 hours a day."

But this is the drill until the end of October for the Kirks and other filbert farmers in the Willamette Valley, a region responsible for 98 percent of the hazelnut production in the United States.

With the arid weather -- up until last weekend, anyway -- farmers have been pleased with what they've seen thus far.

Tractors aren't bogged down in fields because of mud, and equipment is easier to clean. Because the filberts and husks are so dry, "they're flying" through the processor, Kirk said.

"What the grower brings in, weight-wise, he gets to keep more of it," Kirk said. "During a typical year, hazelnuts can lose up to 30 percent of their weight in moisture

Lance Kirk, a second-generation hazelnut farmer, in the orchard at the family

Photo by Pete Strong

Lance Kirk, a second-generation hazelnut farmer, in the orchard at the family's farm on Wilgrich Road.

from being in the dryer."

About that name: are they filberts or hazelnuts?

They're interchangeable. Kirk said his maternal grandfather used to say he grew the former and marketed the latter.

"It's just a way to make them sound sexier," Kirk said. "At home, we just call them nuts."

It was grandpa who inspired Lance's father, Joe, to plant an orchard in 1980 as a way to diversify a then 1,000-acre farm. They have roughly 185 acres worth of filberts today.

The science of hazelnuts has improved. They're breeding trees on some acreage and testing soils to keep nutrient levels up in deficient areas. Equipment is a little more refined.

"But harvest hasn't changed much," Joe Kirk said. "The kinds of machines we were using 20 years ago we're

A tote of filberts is dumped into a bin at the Kirks

Photo by Pete Strong

A tote of filberts is dumped into a bin at the Kirks' processing plant, where a conveyer leads to a trommel - a rotating metal cylinder that screens out debris and nut husks.

using today, just a newer model."

Oregon's hazelnut production is forecasted to reach 40,000 tons in 2012, which would tie the fourth largest harvest in the state's history, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Acres devoted to the crop seem to go up every year, said Roger Fitts, who grows 135 acres just west of the Kirks.

"I think all of the nuts are more popular these days," Fitts said. "People have learned more about the nutrition of nuts, it's like blueberries and cranberries ... all of a sudden there's something good about them and everybody wants to eat them.

"So we're glad to raise them."

Most filbert farmers don't run their own processing plant because of the volume of nuts needed to justify the cost. The Kirks established theirs in 2006, when Lance Kirk joined the operation.

"It was a way to add more value to the operation," Lance Kirk said, noting it accommodates crops from 30 filbert farmers and can process about 50 tons a day.

Workers dump totes of nuts into a bin that feeds into a screened

Mike Martin keeps an eye on a "de-rocker," another machine that cleans the nuts and filters rocks and other debris out before the nuts are deposited in a silo.

Photo by Pete Strong

Mike Martin keeps an eye on a "de-rocker," another machine that cleans the nuts and filters rocks and other debris out before the nuts are deposited in a silo.

cylinder called a trommel, which filters out the dirt and nuts with husks on them.

The nuts then journey through more trommels, "de-rockers," conveyer belts and wash barrels to further separate and clean the cargo. Eventually, they're blown dry by fan, weighed via a computer and dumped into a silo.

Harvest normally lasts all of October and part of November, longer if it rains. As busy as it is, the whole process is so mechanized that it takes only four individuals, besides the orchard tractor drivers, to run the Kirks' harvest.

On this day, Joe Kirk trundles around the property in a Toyota pickup, "putting out fires" -- like running diesel fuel to a tractor on empty.

The equipment kicks out colossal clouds of dust in the orchard. Joe Kirk notes that all of the flooding this past winter left a silt accumulation on the orchard floor. As such, he and others are flocked in dust by the end of the day.

"It hasn't been this dry in 20 or 30 years," said Joe Kirk, as he tinkers with a tractor's engine. "I'm cleaning out air filters a couple of times a day ... during a regular year, I could go four or five days without doing that."

It's still better than mud.

"It would be nice to have it in between," he said with a laugh. "But that doesn't happen too often here."

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