AURI Connects: Fields of Innovation Innovator Profiles is a Q&A series with Minnesota entrepreneurs who have partnered with AURI to build capacity and successfully commercialize new crop and livestock opportunities, including new traits for existing crops.
Q&A with Paul Ronsheim, Grower at The American Hazelnut Company
AURI: What is your involvement with the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI)?
PR: The American Hazelnut Company (AHC) has had useful involvement with AURI since our early days. The product analysis information allowed AHC to benchmark the composition to keep our product consistent. Recently we had an excellent collaboration on our flour production process, resulting in a major improvement in the flour particle size and consistency. Production cost was also significantly reduced with the new methods.
AURI: How did the business get its start?
PR: The AHC is a group of hazelnut growers in the Upper Midwest interested in sustainable agriculture. Most of us started growing hazelnuts for their ecological benefits (carbon sequestration, water filtration and erosion control are some). We soon realized that we needed to work together if we wanted to sell our product and play a significant role in the transition to climate-friendly agriculture. So, in 2014, we organized a company to process and market hazelnut products. Now we sell hazelnut oil, hazelnut flour, roasted kernels and a flavored snack called HazelSnackers, which you can purchase on our website.
AURI: What are some the reasons people might purchase your products?
PR: People buy hazelnut products for their nutritional benefits, great taste and positive environmental impact. Hazelnuts are a very healthy diet choice, high in protein, omega–3 fat and vitamin E. They are quite versatile and taste great with roasted vegetables, chocolate hazelnut cake and as a crust on salmon (recipes on our website). The Midwest hybrid hazelnuts have a better flavor than the more common Oregon-grown varieties and the skins are not bitter, so bakers can avoid blanching. Hazelnut oil is much like olive oil, but with a superior fat profile and a higher smoke point in cooking. It makes a delicious salad dressing and adds a subtle nutty flavor to sauteed vegetables. We even drizzle it on vanilla ice cream with honey and sea salt. So good! It also remains a liquid at refrigerator temperatures.
AURI: What makes your product innovative?
PR: Hazelnut bushes are a productive permaculture species, growing food while keeping the soil in place. There is interest in the carbon sequestration benefits of a woody field crop, hazelnuts being the lead candidate for large area plantings. Hazelnuts are also native to the Upper Midwest, which means they require few inputs beyond what nature provides and make a great habitat for local fauna. People appreciate the regional focus of our Midwest product. Sustainable agriculture and products grown locally is part of our appeal to consumers.
AURI: What is your biggest challenge?
PR: Our biggest challenge is expanding the acreage of hazelnut plantings. Our business is limited by the supply of Midwest hybrid hazelnuts. Propagation of hazelnut plants is currently done by rooting shoots, a form of vegetative propagation. Higher volume plantings will need clonal plants produced in large numbers. Another challenge we face is changing the diets of consumers. Few people are familiar with hazelnut oil and its nutritional and culinary benefits. Once people try it, they enjoy it, but this requires an open-mind and an adventurous outlook on food.
AURI: Do you or have you collaborated with other small businesses? If so, in what way?
PR: We have local small business collaborations, including honey and maple syrup suppliers for our snack recipes. Our graphic designer is 10 miles away, and the printer is also nearby.
AURI: What small change(s) have you made that had the biggest positive result?
PR: Broadening our product line by adding flavored hazelnut snacks was a low investment project. We only need kitchen hours to make them, with no new equipment needed. The three flavors in colorful printed bags have improved our marketing at farmers markets and on store shelves. The “HazelSnackers” are also popular in our web sales, particularly around the holidays.
AURI: How can AURI’s readers and supporters purchase your products, connect with your business online and/or help your business thrive?
PR: Follow us on Instagram and Facebook. You can also visit our website at americanhazelnutcompany.com to buy products, find our favorite recipes and learn more about our company mission. The best means of contact is to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.