LAKE CITY—Norman Erickson never gets sick of hazelnuts. The city boy turned farmer even has a license plate on his truck that says HAZLNUT.
Erickson and his wife, Mary Erickson, own Hazelnut Valley Farm, 30 acres of land in Lake City, on the other side of Bluff View Elementary, through the trees.
For 18 of those acres, the Ericksons' rent out the land for growing non-GMO corn. The remaining 12 acres are reserved for 4,000 hazelnut bushes. And a slight slithering of grape vines.
Erickson became interested in the the concept of growing hazelnuts after listening to talk by Philip Rutter, owner of Badgersett Research Corp. in Rochester, where he discussed the possible benefits of using hazelnut oil as an alternative fuel.
Erickson attended the talk because he has an interest in preserving the environment. From the talk stemmed a district love of hazelnuts.
In 2004, the Ericksons got started on their farm. They'd spend a lot of time in the field trying to cultivate the land to benefit the hazelnuts. The bushes grow to almost 10 to 12 feet, according to Erickson.
Each year they get 100 tons of leaves to allow the soil to develop naturally. Hazelnuts are a perennial, so the small group who manages the farm doesn't have to do everyday back-breaking work.
That ease is important to Erickson, who moves a little slower in the field after suffering a stroke in 2012.
No pain. No nausea. No discomfort.
Back in 2012, Hazelnut Valley Farm was beginning to come together. Just two years prior, the field was finally showing significant growth. The Ericksons' late-life investment was beginning to culminate.
When Erickson was hooking a trailer up to a vehicle north of Lake City, he began to feel funny.
He got into the vehicle when the roads began to multiply. Erickson wasn't sure which one to go on.
His body felt fine, but the double vision made it difficult. Erickson called his son to pick him up and take him to the hospital, where Erickson was told he suffered a stroke.
When he was in high school, Erickson was told he had a small heart murmur when he was checked out by a doctor in northern Wisconsin where he grew up.
The doctor said it was small, not something Erickson would really think about until 2012. Never again was the heart murmur addressed by doctors, according to Erickson, who mentioned the small hole after his stroke.
After the doctors checked his heart, they found a small hole, prompting doctors to believe a small gas bubble had moved into the hole. The gas bubble plugged a capillary that fed to the back of his head, taking out the third cranial nerve.
As a result, one of his eyes was stuck looking one direction for 14 months. Erickson had surgery, where doctor cut the eye muscles and adjusted them.
But the double vision problems are still there when he looks down or focuses on objects that are through a window. He uses his left hand, which used to be his dominant hand, just for gross motor functions now. In the field, he moves slowly, his left leg holds him back some.
All in all, as Erickson said, he's lucky.
"It could be worse," Erickson said laughing. "A lot worse."
The biggest thing that bothers him has to do with his love of polka. A favorite dance with himself and his daughter, they used to teach old-time dancing in ballrooms in Rochester. He loves dancing, but can't do it any longer.
However, for first timers out at the farm, it's required listening to enjoy some polka music. Whether you dance or not is up to you.
The sunset years
Recently, Hazelnut Valley Farm paired with two other farms to purchase an old blueberry picker to help their farm operation. Previously, the Ericksons and eight to 10 others picked he hazelnuts by hand.
As Erickson says, life is too short to pick hazelnuts by hand. Now, they are able to spend two six-hour sessions harvesting the hazelnuts in September and October.
The blueberry picker shakes each bush back and worth, causing the hazelnuts to fall onto a conveyor belt area. The belt then feeds the hazelnuts through to totes.
After each tote is filled, the hazelnuts are bagged and they'll be dried out for months.
The group will crack the nuts in Erickson's homemade equipment, freeze them, then roast them to nutty goodness.
Hazelnut Valley Farm also sells hazelnut oil in a rollerball. Hazelnut oil can be used for moisturizing and a number of different applications.
The farm doesn't sell raw nuts and will sell roasted hazelnuts during the holidays as well, but the Erickson like as much time as they can to dry the nuts and wait to roast.
The Ericksons usually sell out early in the summer. The best way to purchase nuts is by emailing them at email@example.com or finding them at the Rochester or Mill City farmers markets.
Erickson is satisfied with his crop, remarking that he is in his "sunset years." When it comes to growing other crops on his land, he'll let someone else determine that.
For now, he'll stay nutty, growing the thing he loves.