Donald Hazelnut Festival is Saturday

by:  JOSH KULLA - A hazelnut orchard owned by St. Paul farmer John Graham is one of many that dot the north Willamette Valley landscape. The last decade has seen resurgence in the Willamette Valley’s hazelnut industry.

Now, a group of dedicated organizers from the town of Donald are working to make the tasty and healthy nuts synonymous with the small Marion County town just south of Wilsonville.

“I’ve lived here for 30 some years, my family longer than that, and when I first moved here, across the street from us were 45 acres of hazelnuts,” said Pam Searle, one of the lead organizers behind the inaugural Donald Hazelnut Festival. “You don’t notice them all the time, but they’re all around us. We went out and started to get all the growers and farmers to sponsor this event and we learned more about hazelnuts too.”

Set for Saturday, July 13, on Main Street in downtown Donald, the festival will feature a variety of entertainment, including a classic car show, live music and professional skateboarding demonstrations. And, of course, it all comes with a focus on one of the most traditional of Oregon crops.

It might have been nice to have had such an event years ago, said Dennis Melcher, a second-generation Willamette Valley farmer with 66 acres of hazelnut trees, some more than 50 years old, on land outside St. Paul. Hazelnuts are also called filberts.

“Everything has its time, though,” said Melcher, who has watched over the past 10 years as a growing number of farmers in north Marion and south Clackamas counties have planted a wide range of hazelnut varieties.

“Different people and groups are starting to promote it now. China started to buy a lot of filberts; it’s just the circumstances,” Melcher said. “All of a sudden now it seems to be one of the hotter nuts. People are discovering it.”

The Donald Hazelnut Festival officially replaces the former Donald Daze, something Searle and other organizers are especially glad to see.

“It mostly has been a small town parade, which is a total big change for us,” she said. “Donald Daze sort of fell apart because organizers drifted away. Filberts are a lot bigger these days.”

Last July, Searle and a few others put together a trial version of this year’s event. It went off smoothly and they proceeded to ramp up the booking, promotion and logistics to provide an event they hope will bring visitors to Donald who otherwise would never have set foot in town. by: JOSH KULLA - Views of Mount Hood are common in north Willamette Valley orchards facing northeast. This is John Grahams hazelnut orchard.

Corporate sponsors include Donald’s largest employers, GK Machine Inc., Bear Electric, Holland Custom Fabricator Inc., Canby Music and Corban Auto Repair Plus.

And while the overall event is filbert-themed, there still will be a parade this year, along with the classic car cruise-in, numerous live bands, a beer garden, woodcarving demonstrations by Aurora’s Toby J, a barbecue cook-off and much more.

Even Donald’s popular and well-known skateboard park is part of the draw, despite having nothing to do with agriculture.

It’s all part of an effort to not only brand Donald as a destination for visitors, but to raise the local culture, said organizer Shawna Gentert.

There are many disparate artists, musicians, craftsmen and other small-business owners who each offer a unique slice of culture, she explained. The festival aims to bring them all together in one spot for the benefit of visitors and locals alike.

“It’s taken on a life of its own, which we didn’t really anticipate,” Gentert said. “It’s a great little place, it’s a diamond in the rough and we wanted to bring more attention to that. We just really wanted to change the perception of Donald. It’s a neat destination and people just don’t know about it.”

Back on the Melcher farm, Dennis Melcher said a confluence of factors has played a part in raising the filbert's profile locally and even internationally.

In Asia, he said, hazelnuts have become prized as food for the brain. More locally, the overall health benefits of the protein-rich nuts also have become more widely recognized. Plus, he added, they simply taste good.

“There are a lot of non-orchard farmers who have been planting (filberts) the last few years,” he said. “They’ve realized it’s a good crop to grow and there’s been quite a few acres of trees that have gone in.”

Anything that raises the profile of Melcher’s lifeblood is a good thing, he concluded.

“I’m glad that Donald is doing that,” he said. “I think you’ll kick-start an annual thing for them that will be good. I hope a good crowd comes out and supports the weekend. It is certainly good promotion for the hazelnut industry.”

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