Hazelnut farm brings out the flavor in regional culinary show
Back in 2006, when American Idol-fever was reaching the apex of its popularity across the country, St. Paul resident Julie Melcher was quietly finishing up her collegiate career at University of the Pacific in California.
A 2002 graduate of North Marion High School, Melcher earned her degree in business administration the same time Taylor Hicks was busy winning the show's fifth season. As fate would have it, the two crossed paths more than a decade later when Melcher's background in the family hazelnut business coincided with the Alabama native's TV show highlighting regional food from across the country.
Hicks and the Melcher family connected over the summer as part of a segment on the INSP program State Plate — a show that features Hicks traveling across the country showcasing a variety of foods closely associated with each state. When Hicks came to Oregon, it was only natural that State Plate would highlight hazelnuts, a Willamette Valley staple that sees 99 percent of the nation's product come out of the Beaver State.
"When they first contacted us, we Googled them, and it looked like a pretty cool show," Melcher said. "They went to four other locations. They went crabbing, mushroom picking and I think they went to Hood River for one of the fruits."
The Melcher family welcomed Hicks in July to tour their farm — Ken & June's Hazelnuts, located northeast of St. Paul on McKay Road. Julie Melcher, along with her father Dennis, guided the program through the 300-acre property, talking about the history of hazelnuts in Oregon and taking them through the roasting kitchen on the property to show how the that process is done. To cap off the segment, the three helped cook a hazelnut-based dish featuring broccoli and garlic.
"The majority of our nuts that we sell at Ken & Junes are roasted nuts, so customers see where it goes from the tree to roasting and then the finished product that they're cooking on the plate," Julie Melcher said. "It's very simple. It kind of showcases the Oregon nut. Not quite as tasty as the crab dishes they're making, but it was neat."
The tour of the farm and the cooking segment took around five hours, but she expects that with the other foods featured in the episode, the hazelnut segment will only be a few minutes long after the show is produced.
When the show's producers first contacted the Melchers, Julie admitted that she and her father were unfamiliar with the American Idol winner.
"It's funny, when my aunt found out, she was like 'Oh my gosh, Taylor Hicks?!'" Julie said. "But we didn't even know who he was."
The family hazelnut business began in 1957 when Dennis' parents — Ken and June — moved to St. Paul and decided to begin cultivating filbert trees.
"They knew nothing about hazelnuts, but just decided that's what they (were) going to grow," Julie said.
Dennis took over farming duties when upon Ken's death 33 years ago, and moved his family to the property in 1998 after his mother died. Two years later, Julie's parents, along with her aunt and uncle, purchased the equipment and license from local farmer Elmer Ernst and renamed it to Ken & June's.
The business was fairly small for the first eight to 10 years, but has begun to grow significantly in the past decade as the Oregon hazelnut industry has taken off. Julie Melcher returned to the family business in 2008 and helped spread the Ken & June brand to grocery stores around the region, getting their product into Thriftways, New Seasons, Roth's and Made in Oregon stores.
As the trend toward eating healthy local food has spread throughout the region, hazelnuts have become an increasingly popular choice for health-conscious consumers.
"Healthy and local is the trend," Julie Melcher said. "There's a lot of very loyal, health-conscious people. They might be tight with their wallet in some places, but they're going to spend that extra money on healthy, local food, and that obviously works in our benefit."
As the holiday season approaches, so too does peak hazelnut season for producers around the state. While December is a popular month for hazelnuts due to holiday gift packs, candies and roasted treats, November is actually the biggest month for sales.
"It's our busiest month keeping our shelves full, and it's because people are baking, using them for cookies, brownies, stuffings," she said. "So for cooking and baking, there's a lot of uses for them. And that's kind of what the State Plate episode was – just a nice, healthy side dish. Hazelnut broccoli, who would have thought?"
The State Plate episode airs at 5 p.m. Friday, just in time to take advantage of the holiday hazelnut season. The show is in the middle of its second season that will feature the best food that Oregon has to offer, from Marionberry pie to Dungeness crab, pear salad, truffle mac and cheese — and of course hazelnut broccoli.