RURAL HOOPESTON — When a group of Vermilion County teachers was asked where hazelnuts are grown, parts of Europe and the Pacific Northwest came to mind. Certainly not their own backyard.
But the teachers learned this week that hazelnut trees not only grew in Vermilion County at one time, but were also quite abundant.
"Hazelnuts grew like weeds. They love Vermilion County soil," said Tom Sweeney, who along with his wife, Jane, started a hazelnut orchard south of Hoopeston a few years ago, and hopes that other county residents will follow suit.
On Tuesday, 17 teachers visited Sweeney Hazelnut Orchard and the Lingley Bros. Sweetcorn and Double D Beef farms, both near Rossville, as part of the 2012 Summer Ag Institute, a weeklong workshop put on by the Vermilion County Farm Bureau's Ag in the Classroom program. This year's theme is "Local Farms = Local Foods."
Other stops throughout the week will include Sleepy Creek Vineyards and Long Lane Bee Farm in Fairmount, Ludwig Farmstead Creamery and Farm in Fithian, Quiet Springs Farm and Pearson's Melon Farm in Howard, Ind., Seven Sisters Farm in Sidney, the K&D Ranch and Sugar Shack Antiques in Oakwood, and Leiding's Meats & Catering in Danville.
Vermilion County "is known for its corn and soybeans," said Staci Walker, the local Farm Bureau's ag literacy coordinator. "But we have really good quality soil that lends itself to growing a lot of things well. We're seeing more specialty farms now.
"This year, we wanted to give teachers a chance to learn about the local slow-food movement and see firsthand how the food gets from the farm to the table," she said, adding that teachers will be able to take what they learn and incorporate it into lessons across the curriculum.
The Sweeneys, longtime teachers in Flossmoor, moved to the Hoopeston area five years ago, and experimented with growing various specialty crops in their 5-acre pasture. After much research and finding a grant that would help pay for trees, they decided to grow hazelnuts — something Jane dabbled in for a National Arbor Society research project in the couple's yard in the suburbs.
In spring 2010, the couple planted 100 plants, a hybrid variety that's a crossbreed of a tree and bush. They now have 200 plants in various stages of growth.
Tom Sweeney said the plants need lots of sun, but are relatively low maintenance. They're not affected much by bugs or disease and fairly resilient in periods of low rain, even drought.
"I really would encourage people to try growing them," he said.
It will take five years for the trees to mature and start yielding nuts. Jane Sweeney said an organic foods co-op in Urbana and friend who owns an upscale bakery in Flossmoor already have expressed interest in buying their produce.
But "if we never get one dime in production cost back, we'll still have done something I feel proud of. It's good for the environment, and they're pretty," she said.
In the meantime, Jane Sweeney, now a sixth-grade teacher at John Greer Elementary in Hoopeston, and her husband have enjoyed teaching local students about hazelnuts. She said former students who "adopted" a tree still ask her about theirs when they run into her.
"It has generated a lot of enthusiasm from them," she said.
The visit also generated enthusiasm from the teachers, who said they have already gotten lots of ideas for lessons and activities from the Sweeneys, Walker and other presenters.
"I really like the idea of taking a field trip and letting the kids adopt a tree," said Jordan Downing, a sixth-grade teacher in Catlin. "I think it would really engage the kids (in the lesson) and give them a personal connection with it."
"Our kids are city kids, and many of them don't have the resources to leave town," said Cindy Shahan, who teaches first grade at East Park Elementary in Danville. She and her daughter, Terra Williamson, who teaches at kindergarten at East Park, said their pupils aren't really aware of where their food or clothes come from other than a store.
"If we can bring some of this to the classroom, I really believe it would give them a better understanding and appreciation of agriculture," Shahan said.