Hazelnut Growers of Oregon (HGO) and its parent company Wilco have announced they are seeking a partner with a track record of building great brands to form a joint venture to grow HGO’s retail hazelnut consumer product business.

As the country’s premier hazelnut processor, the Oregon-based business unit of farmer-owned cooperative Wilco represents more than 200 hazelnut growers who collectively own in excess of 20,000 acres of orchards, accounting for approximately 20 percent of the hazelnut orchards in the United States. 

The partner will help HGO further expand the reach of its suite of hazelnut-based natural, seasoned and confectionery consumer products, which are currently offered under the “Oregon Orchard” brand.

The market opportunity for hazelnuts is extensive, as they reflect the key product attributes consumers look for today—healthful, tasty and planet-friendly —offering particular promise in the rapidly growing healthy snack category.

As a nutritional powerhouse, hazelnuts are high in protein, fiber, folate, antioxidants, vitamins B and E, and omega-6 and 9—and also low in sugar, gluten-free, and keto- and paleo-friendly. Sustainably grown on family farms in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where the moderate climate, ample precipitation and rich volcanic soil provide ideal growing conditions, hazelnut trees are self-pollinating and bee-friendly and use much less water than other domestic nut crops. The hazelnuts are non-GMO certified and are steam pasteurized, using no chemicals.

Despite these advantages, hazelnuts remain a largely untapped opportunity, accounting for just 7 percent of total U.S. nut sales. In fact, per capita consumption of hazelnuts is nine times higher in Europe than in the United States, presenting an exceptional opportunity for growth.

“We have had impressive early market traction with our Oregon Orchard consumer brand, but to maximize this line we need the support of a larger player with established experience in consumer product brands and resources to invest in the partnership,” says Greg Thorsgard, chief operating officer of HGO.

The joint venture will offer the partner a number of benefits, most notably access to an up-and-running production facility; an existing product line; a compelling new product roadmap; and strong product development, operating and sales teams. The partner will have control over branding, sales and operations.

HGO is well-positioned for success with a new SQF-3 certified facility that maintains the highest levels of food safety standards and traceability at every step, and can efficiently process whole kernel, sliced, diced, meal and paste/butter format of hazelnuts. 

“HGO has made a significant investment in the operation and is in a strong position to help drive the business forward together with a strategic partner,” Thorsgard says. “The joint venture will provide HGO’s partner with the ability to quickly and successfully deliver HGO’s products under the partner’s branding into a growing market without a large upfront investment,” he said, adding that their potential is largely untapped, with no leading national brand exclusively associated with hazelnuts as a snack food.

Among the products ready for support are 36 SKUs of savory, confectionary, and natural hazelnut products; 7 SKUs of food service hazelnut products; and 26 SKUs of hazelnut-based ingredients to date, with new products in the pipeline.

Interested parties should contact Bob Wiggins of the Mountain Group, which is advising HGO and Wilco Farmers. Bob Wiggins can be reached at rwiggins@mtngroup.net.