Hazelnut and walnut trees among cultivars becoming commercially viable.
Nuts are being grown more than ever by English farmers as the climate heats, making the products more economically viable, growers have said.
Nut trees are also helpful for biodiversity on farms, improving soil health as their roots improve the ability and capacity of soil to absorb water, reducing the risk of wind erosion.
Speaking at the Oxford Real Farming conference, Guy Singh-Watson, who founded the organic vegetable box company Riverford, began experimenting with hazelnut and walnut trees on his 150-acre Devon farm after feeling guilty about how much he ploughed his fields for vegetable crops.
He said: “The vegetables that we grow are pretty much all annuals and involve cultivation of the soil, and increasingly over the years I’ve got more and more uncomfortable with that. It’s kind of our achilles heel really – three years ago we lost 10,000 tonnes of soil in 10 minutes. I am just full of shame for that. It happened on my watch, I don’t want to be responsible for it happening again.”
Singh-Watson said he has enjoyed his recent foray into growing nuts, and loves them so much that he eats them for breakfast every morning. He said they were easy to grow: “You don’t have to do anything, I spent 40 years trying to coax vegetables into life and they just die all the time, but hazels grow so well. There doesn’t seem to be any problem growing walnuts in our climate.”
He has had success grazing cattle in the orchards, and now plans to grow kale among some of his hazel trees.
England’s climate is heating up, with last year the hottest on record, with a long, dry summer. This is making many crops difficult to grow, and many farmers reported crop failures during the drought.
Though they sometimes need irrigation when first planted, nut trees do well in warm weather and can survive dry summers. Singh-Watson said he had recently visited Piedmont in Italy, where hazelnuts are a major crop – it is home to Ferrero, the company that makes Nutella. Despite the hot, dry summer in Italy, the nuts were flourishing.
Tom Tame, who has been growing walnuts in Warwickshire for 30 years, said the hotter, drier climate was helping.
Though walnuts grow all the way up to the Arctic Circle, he explained “walnuts will happily grow in colder conditions but farther north you are going to get less of a crop. In this country, we’re on the cusp of what works commercially”.
The sector was exciting, he said, because English walnuts are considered to be particularly high quality and in demand. Farmers are increasingly growing them in order to shelter livestock such as sheep from hot weather while also producing a profitable crop.
“A lot of the best walnut cultivars in the world at the moment in terms of crop yields prefer a warmer climate,” he added.
“One variety, Chandler, reportedly prefers to be about 25C on average. We hit 24.8C on average last summer, so we’re finally getting into that territory.”
Cobnuts are a type of hazelnut grown in Kent, and traditionally eaten fresh, rather than dried. Tom Cannon, whose family farm in the county has been growing these nuts for generations, is upping production and expanding into the types of dried hazelnuts you might find in a chocolate bar.
He currently supplies fresh nuts to Waitrose and Morrisons: “They go into punnets, and that’s a nice way to sell them because it makes the point that it is a fresh nut. We’ve started getting more equipment for taking the husks off, roasting them and cracking them. In Kent we’ve had this fresh eating culture but we haven’t necessarily done the other things.”