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Hazelnuts: New Jersey Plant Breeding Program Aims To Benefit Farmers, Consumers

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Hazelnuts are in demand, thanks in large part the growing popularity of Nutella, a hazelnut-cocoa spread from Italy. Most of the nuts come from Turkey, and virtually all of the ones grown in the US come from Oregon's wine country.

"We've really been working towards the goal of bringing hazelnuts as a commercial crop to the Eastern United States," said Rutgers plant biology associate professor Thomas Molnar.

Molnar says, there's one impediment, the European species that produces the commercially used nuts are highly susceptible to a native fungus.

He's overseeing the development of resistant cultivars, a multi-year program that's reached an important step.

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"We've made our selections, we've tested them on a few farms, and on our research farm, and we have plants that we think can go to the next level of larger farm production," he said.

Molnar believes Garden State hazelnuts could be the equal of Jersey's peaches and tomatoes.

"If we handle it the right way, we can get it into our local economy, and get better prices than if we're trying to sell the nuts on the world market," he said.

He says it takes the trees about seven years to go into full scale production, so don't expect to see Jersey hazelnuts at farm stands just yet.

"I think we're looking at 10 years," he added.

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