NEW BRUNSWICK — We're on the brink of a worldwide hazelnut shortage, and Rutgers University is here to save the day.

Following decades of work, the university's hazelnut tree breeding program has developed a crop that's resistant to both colder weather and a fungus that's made it impossible for commercial hazelnut tree operations to exist in much of the United States.

"We've got 10 acres of hazelnut trees here right now that are thriving for the first time, really, in history if you look at the European species," plant biologist Thomas Molnar told New Jersey 101.5.

Most commercially-sold hazelnuts are grown in Turkey and the Wilmette Valley of Oregon. The soaring popularity of Nutella, a hazelnut cocoa spread, has driven up demand for hazelnuts worldwide to a point where its exceeding supply.

Because of the groundbreaking research, Rutgers said it's possible that within the decade, Nutella will be made with hazelnuts from trees that were developed at the university.

Ferrero, the company that makes Nutella and uses about a quarter of the world's hazelnut supply, sends representatives to the Rutgers research plots twice a year to monitor progress.

"We have been carefully observing the progress of the program managed by Professor Molnar and we strongly believe in his plans and results," said Michele Pisetta, a manager of sustainability at Ferrero. "At Ferrero, we hope the development of new varieties Professor Molnar is working on will be successful and open new areas for planting hazelnut worldwide."

But first thing's first. Molnar said the next step is getting these thriving trees in the hands of farmers sometime next year.

"Right now we probably have about 10 different farms in New Jersey that are willing to experiment and to take a little bit of a risk on a new crop," Molnar said.

Hazelnut trees are easy to maintain and harvest, Molnar noted. He said local demand is "extremely high" for the crop — at spots such as restaurants, bakeries and ice cream shops — so farmers won't need to wait for a big buyer like Nutella to see a financial benefit.

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