SALEM -- Oregon farmers continue to add to the state's groves of hazelnuts as optimism remains that there's room for more expansion.
The state dominates U.S. production, but is a small player worldwide, the agricultural publication Capital Press reported.
Oregon produces 99 percent of the U.S. crop, with about 650 growers operating on about 30,000 acres. Anecdotal evidence suggests a growth rate of about 3,000 acres a year, the Capital Press reported.
Once threatened by eastern filbert blight that arrived in the 1970s, the industry's been on the rise since a breeding program at Oregon State University began producing fungus-resistant varieties.
Hazelnut trees take three to four years to begin producing nuts in earnest, but Polly Owen, executive director of the Oregon Hazelnut Commission, said a ready market will be waiting.
"Keep in mind that we are 3 percent of the world (production)," Owen said. "I think we're fine."
Turkey produces 70 percent of the world supply, and Italy is second, with 18 percent.
Statistics from Oregon's 2013 harvest aren't yet available. In 2012, growers pulled in 34,700 tons of nuts. The crop was valued at $63.4 million, 16th among Oregon commodities.
About half the crop is exported, with China the biggest buyer.
But there are questions about whether the market will soon become saturated.
"What is the top? Boy, this is the $6 million question -- we don't know," said Jim Cramer, director of a state Department of Agriculture program that helps farmers market their products around the world.
The amount of land available might limit expansion, experts say, but growth in acreage could also displace other crops.
Cramer said hazelnuts are similar to other Oregon crops, such as wine and blueberries, in that state producers aren't the biggest players.
"Where we find success is in the quality of the products we produce, and they garner a premium," he said.