Wilberry Orchards a downright nutty Cowichan farm

This 74-acre Cowichan Valley farm comes complete with a nuthouse.

In 1992 Neil and Christine Wilson bought an old dairy farm on Flett Road from Mrs. Flett.

"We didn’t really know what we were going to do, but we bought it anyway," said Neil.

Inspiration came from Christine’s father, Ron, who had planted an orchard of different kinds of nut trees on a quarter-acre property in Victoria. Nuts were his passion.

Following that dream, in 1995 the Wilsons, along with Ron and his wife Joyce Carberry who had moved to Cowichan, planted 1,000 hazelnut trees on the property, now named Wilberry Orchards. In 1996 they planted 2,000 more.

They now have about 20 acres of trees including five different varieties, that produce about 15,000 pounds of hazelnuts a year.

"It actually turned out to be a lot more work than we figured," said Neil.

He said one of the reasons they chose the crop was that while it doesn’t "make a whole bunch of money" (which helps to explain why there are relatively few on Vancouver Island), it also doesn’t cost a lot of money to get into, as there’s no quota to be bought or expensive infrastructure to invest in, other than the farmland itself.

The couple, along with Christine’s mother, do most of the work on the farm themselves.

Like many other types of farming, there are several times of the year when the work is intensive.

First is the pruning season, which takes place just after the first hard frost in December when the trees go dormant.

"I watch the weather all the time," said Neil, who doesn’t like getting soaked to the skin pruning in the rain.

Then there is harvest, which the farm is heading into now in October.

Hazelnuts are harvested off the ground, swept into piles row by row with ride-on machines.

Then they’re taken to the nuthouse where they are washed, dried, deblanked (nobody likes an empty hazelnut shell, Neil says), and sized.

Right now, dozens of big, wooden bins stand empty, waiting to be filled with nuts.

Wilberry Farm sells nuts to Country Grocer, Thrifty Foods, Fairway Market, Red Barn Market stores in Victoria, some 49th Parallel Grocery stores, Spinnakers and Chateau Victoria in the provincial capital and Just Jakes in Duncan, where you can try the

kernels on the spinach salad.

Adam Wilson, Neil’s nephew, is the store manager at Country Grocer in Cobble Hill.

Adam is proud to say that the chain is one of the biggest buyers of Wilberry Orchards’ hazelnuts.

"We try to buy as much produce and support local as much as we possibly can, whether it’s hazelnuts or Farmhouse chicken which is just down the road in Cobble Hill," he explained. "We’re locally owned and operated. You can’t preach something and not live it, right?" These are the only type of locally-grown nuts available commercially, and Country Grocer is proud to put them in their nut mixtures.

Customers want locally grown and produced food, Adam said.

"If you want your neighbours to stop in your store, you’ve got to support your neighbours," Neil said.

Neil isn’t looking to expand his sales.

Two years ago, Wilberry Orchards ran out of product there was already so much demand.

Hazelnuts are the only nut crop produced commercially in B.C. according to the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture. Christmas is the big sales season.

The province produces about 330,000 kg of the nuts each year, off of about 330 hectares, and production is expected to increase over the next decade.

Dried and frozen the nuts are good for two years, Neil said, and they are good for you – high in protein and trace elements.

Hazelnut trees take about three to four years to begin producing, and will hit full production in about 10 to 12 years.

According the Agriculture Ministry, each nut tree should live 75 to 100 years. A mature tree can produce eight to 10 kg of nuts.

Oregon, and to a lesser extent Washington state, are the main producers of hazelnuts in North America, but that could change, Neil said.

The big farms there have been hit with the Eastern filbert blight that has decimated many producers. It has also made its way to the hazelnut farms on the B.C. mainland. While there are blight-resistant hazelnut varieties now available, a number of the producers are mostly in their 50s, 60s and 70s.

"I think some of them just don’t want to start over again," Neil said.

So far, the blight has not travelled to Vancouver Island, which has a good natural barrier of ocean on all sides.

Even so, Neil said that Wilberry has looked into the blight-resistant varieties, and even had some on order at one point, but he reconsidered when he discovered that although the new variety he was looking at won’t succumb to the blight itself, it can still be a carrier and spread the disease to his existing trees.

Neil is careful about keeping his mature orchard healthy. Any replacement trees needed for the farm come from the small hazelnut nursery on the property.

But with some farmers set to exit the market, there’s room for others to get into the business, Neil said, pointing out that B.C. is still a net importer of hazelnuts.