Wanted: Chestnut Growers

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Chestnut trees (view larger image)

Amidst a fragrant grove of tall, silvery-barked trees at the Michigan State University (MSU) Clarksville Research Center, Roger Blackwell is looking for a few good growers.

“You can still have your grapes and apples, but you may want to think about putting in 10 acres of chestnuts for diversification purposes,” said Blackwell, president of Chestnut Growers, Inc. – a grower cooperative in Michigan. “I could sell a million pounds of chestnuts tomorrow if I had them. The world stage is set for Michigan chestnuts. The only thing lacking are growers willing to establish orchards.”

The pitch leaves many attendees at the annual field day event crunching numbers, scratching their heads and doubting recent investments in high-density Honeycrisp apple trees and young wine grapes in particular. Public calls, such as this one, to enlist new growers are typically a no-no in agriculture, where over-production can quickly cause markets to crash and crops to go unharvested and left to rot. But chestnuts are an exception.

“I think what’s unique about chestnuts that I haven’t seen in other horticultural crop systems is that the industry wants new growers. They’re trying to recruit new growers, and they’re supporting them as well,” said Erin Lizotte, MSU Extension educator. “There’s a market for new growers, and it’s one of those situations where they need all of the chestnuts and they want
to support anyone who is willing to contribute to that.”

Like many other growers, Josh Springer admits he was a skeptic at first. But in spring 2015, he decided to take the plunge. He purchased over 50 acres in four locations throughout lower Michigan and is planting chestnut trees at each of the sites. He said he was convinced not only by Blackwell, but by MSU as well, to make the investment in a commercial chestnut growing operation.

“I think chestnut growers are seeing that there is less risk involved, in large part because of the MSU research,” Springer said. “There are scientific data to back up these claims.”

Blackwell concurs and credits MSU for transforming the once backyard hobby into a burgeoning industry. Today, Michigan ranks No. 1 in the United States in number of chestnut growers and chestnut acreage. Much of the newer acreage is due to hobbyist growers taking chestnuts more seriously and investing in additional land to plant the trees for commercial production.

“If it wasn’t for Michigan State University, I wouldn’t be growing chestnuts,” Blackwell said. “Dr. Dennis Fulbright is really the guy who made it happen. Together, we are literally growing a chestnut tree industry in Michigan.”

THE RISE, FALL AND REBIRTH OF CHESTNUTS

In the late 1800s, one in every four trees in the Appalachian Mountains or eastern forest was a chestnut. The nuts were small and served as food for animals, and the sturdy trees were primarily used as timber. But a fungal infection known as chestnut blight singlehandedly destroyed the industry. In the first half of the 20th century, blight claimed some 4 billion mature American chestnut trees, making them a distant memory for many.

U.S. farmers began to replant chestnut trees in the latter part of the century but faced serious struggles. Hearing grower concerns, Fulbright – a plant pathologist – spearheaded an initiative to begin a full-fledged chestnut research program at MSU.

“It’s strange that a plant pathologist would start a horticulture crop research program because we just don’t normally do that,” he said. “Typically, we take care of our plant disease and go on with that. But no one at the time was looking at chestnuts and chestnut blight, which is the fungal disease limiting chestnuts.”

In the late 1990s, two Extension educators – one from Leelanau County and another from Antrim County – came to MSU for a forestry meeting and began asking questions on behalf of chestnut growers. They wanted to know if the university was going to help the growers, and if not, they wanted to know why. Fulbright, who had been looking at chestnut blight, was at the meeting.

“I think most in the room could have told the difference between a Chinese chestnut and an American one, but that’s about it,” he said. “This assessment of the original orchards – ‘Why weren’t they producing chestnuts?’ – was the starting point. A lot of people waited six, seven, even eight years with no chestnuts coming off their orchards. That got us really interested.”

Under Fulbright’s guidance, the MSU chestnut research program launched in 2000. It has four areas of concentration:

  • Genetics and orchard establishment.
  • Horticultural care.
  • Harvest, storage and processing.
  • Marketing.

Researchers quickly realized that one of the largest issues facing the industry was that growers were planting Chinese chestnut trees that were not adapted to conditions in the United States. Michigan growers, like those in California, Washington and Oregon, were guilty of farming with what researchers called “inferior germplasm.” Once the right trees were discovered, Fulbright said, MSU was able to graft the trees and grow them on campus with decent yields. Shortly afterwards, growers began to produce nuts – lots and lots of nuts.

MORE SOLUTIONS THAN QUESTIONS

It wasn’t long before growers had more questions on everything from where to purchase the trees to disease and pest management. Even Blackwell, who operates a successful orchard in
Montague, Michigan, said he had a failed attempt at growing chestnuts in the early ‘90s. But that, he said, was before MSU had a foothold in the industry and started providing much-needed answers.

The top threat continues to be chestnut blight. Though not all chestnut trees are susceptible to blight, the high-yielding Japanese-European hybrids typically planted in Michigan are. Fulbright, however, discovered a native, naturally occurring compound that controls chestnut blight. Shown to be effective in research trials, the compound is going through a federal regulatory process so it can be marketed and sold to growers.

Springer, who received his Ph.D. in understanding chestnut blight and its biological control with MSU associate professor Andy Jarosz, plans to eventually sell the compound through a new company he formed called Chestnut Orchard Solutions. Although started for selling the biological control, the business has expanded to offering professional advice and consultation on chestnut production.

“When you tell growers that the trees are susceptible to chestnut blight, that’s definitely when you have to do a bit of convincing,” Springer said. “But when you tell them that we have the solution and they no longer need to worry, they’re usually on board.”

Lizotte, who specializes in chestnut production and works closely with growers throughout Michigan, adds that chestnuts are in a really positive space compared with many other commodities.

“Blight is treated as it arrives, and it’s treated with a biological control that was found natively. The pests we deal with are generalists – they affect a lot of horticultural crops, and we have a lot of information on how to control them with registered products,” she said. “That’s the best of what you can possibly get. I think that’s really exciting. Chestnuts are something we can produce organically unless something major shifts in the future.”

One invasive pest does pose a small challenge – the Asian chestnut gall wasp. Fortunately, Lizotte said, damage has been minimal because there is a natural predator that is effective at controlling it. Plus, one cultivar – ‘Bouche de Betizac’ – has shown resistance to the pest. Fulbright said the MSU research team was the first to tell growers to plant the cultivar because of its natural resistance to the Asian chestnut gall wasp.

“Plus, we have the advantage of being the last chestnut producers in the world to deal with this pest, so there’s a ton of information out there,” Lizotte said. “Comparatively, when we think of
other invasive pests, this isn’t one that is going to run away with the industry.”

With pest and disease management pretty much squared away, growers began wondering about ways to harvest. That’s when Dan Guyer, MSU professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering, was called upon.

“This was at a time when we were really building this industry – as Dennis said, from farm to fork – and slowly making sure we have markets and developing those very carefully,” Guyer said. “So we’re at the point now, everything is going pretty well, when the question arises: ‘How do I pick them up and harvest them and get them to these markets?’”

Fortunately, Guyer said, he didn’t have to start from scratch. He looked to Europe, where chestnuts had been harvested for food for centuries. The equipment varies from a nut wizard – a circular wire hopper that rolls over the chestnuts and collects them – to a mechanical harvester that operates similarly to a street sweeper. Guyer said a midsized harvester about the size of an ATV would give growers an ideal midrange option.

He said several Michigan growers are trying to figure out how to share one of the mechanical harvesters to reduce costs.

MAKING IT WORK

With research and outreach experts lined up to work in areas from genetics to disease management, it wasn’t long before the MSU Product Center got into the mix. In 2002, the MSU Product Center formed its first grower cooperative – Chestnut Growers, Inc.

“With Tom Kalchik’s guidance and steering us in the right direction, we established our first co-op,” Blackwell said. “A steering committee met in 2001, and in 2002, we had our incorporation
papers. We’re probably one of the only actual chestnut cooperatives that is a full-fledged cooperative. We have the most members.”

Today, MSU also has two research centers where chestnut studies are ongoing: Clarksville Research Center, which focuses on the fresh market, and Rogers Reserve in Jackson, focused primarily on processing. And a new business called Treeborn is working to create value-added products from fresh chestnuts.

“I think that if we didn’t have the companies rolling out, we wouldn’t really be able to say that we’ve started an industry in Michigan,” Blackwell said. “And with the cooperative rolling out of this initiative as well, it really gets the growers and MSU involved together.”

Blackwell, who also serves on the board of Chestnut Growers of America, said growers from other states have expressed envy at the Michigan industry because of its close ties to MSU.

“No other state has an MSU. No other state has a Dr. Dennis Fulbright and a Dr. Dan Guyer. Many don’t have the Extension service,” he said. “MSU has been by far the most supportive. No one else has that. To be honest, I wouldn’t be growing chestnuts – I would have gotten out of this a long time ago.”

“And conversely,” Lizotte adds, “we have people in the industry who think of this as a business and run it as such, and that’s what we need. There’s always a struggle with start-up crops about hobbyists versus commercial growers, and I think people like Roger have really provided that leadership. There are very few industries that have been set up in such a calculated way as chestnuts in Michigan have.”

PACKING IT UP

Growers turned to Fulbright and Guyer again when they realized they needed help with storage. They worked with a graduate student to determine the optimum materials with which to treat
the nuts, the best storage procedures and the right temperatures. After that, they researched an x-ray scanning process that allows the bad nuts to be culled from the good ones.

“It’s all a continuum, with the process going from looking at genetics to making a chestnut-flavored beer,” Guyer said. “The storage and the sorting is where I originally planned to contribute
to the industry development, but then we had to go back and look at processing. We had to find a way to get these respiring/living chestnuts processed and stabilized so that we can store them as frozen, dried or some other form to be subsequently turned into value-added products. And get them peeled – that’s the first step in all of that.”

Fulbright said processing fast became a priority because in 2001, when the cooperative was formed, many commodity groups were facing tough pricing, and people were scrambling to come up with value-added products.

“If you go back to the era, almost every crop was overproducing and their prices were plummeting, and cherries were 9 cents a pound in Traverse City,” he said. “We said, let’s start with processing because we know that someday we will overproduce. We’ll be the smart guys and we’ll have all of these products out there. Guess what, we never overproduced, and that’s because we can’t grow enough fresh chestnuts for our fresh and value-added markets.”

Since about 2008, Blackwell said, the cooperative has been focused on the fresh market.

“A lot of the customers want chestnuts through the end of December, but we usually sell out by the first week of November,” he said. “And the price has always gotten better each year.”

Though the cooperative worked a bit on the value-added products, Blackwell said they have been able to fill the quality fresh market. As soon as they’re harvested, the nuts are taken to the Clarksville Research Center and put into a storage unit kept at 32 degrees F. They are cleaned, sanitized and packed – but not for long.

“We do ‘just in time packing’ and get chestnuts to our customers to sell within a week or so. Then we’ll resupply so that they’re turning over the fresh product,” Blackwell said. “They’re in the produce aisle at the grocery store, and we want those chestnuts to sell.”

THE GRAIN THAT GROWS ON TREES

There is no question that the United States is late in discovering chestnuts as food. In China, the average person consumes between 2 and 3 pounds of chestnuts per year. They are also popular in Spain, Portugal, Italy, France and Turkey. But ask shoppers at Detroit’s Eastern Market if they’ve ever had a chestnut and most will say no, according to Blackwell.

“Most people think it’s going to taste like any other nut, but no, it’s different,” he said. “To me, it’s more like a potato. It’s starchy. You could live on chestnuts. They’ve got protein, vitamins A, C and E, and you can make them into a lot of different things.”

Unlike other nuts, chestnuts do not have oil. Many compare it more to a grain like wheat or corn, since it can be ground into gluten-free flour. In fact, somebody long ago termed chestnuts “the grain that grows on trees.” The starchy nuts consist largely of water – 55 percent, to be exact. They are most known for being eaten roasted – thanks to the Christmas song line “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” but the options have broadened. They are a popular ingredient of chefs worldwide, from the puree used in Paris to make pastries to the chips used to flavor beer at the Jolly Pumpkin brewery in Dexter, Michigan.

In fact, demand is so strong that the large nuts command a premium price – sometimes two to three times that of other specialty crops. With a situation so ideal, it’s difficult to imagine a time when chestnuts didn’t flourish in Michigan.

“There is a big opportunity here for producers,” Lizotte said. “I think 10 years ago if you had talked to a tart cherry grower about this, it would have been a different world. The cost of the trees would have been scary, but now as we see high-density apples going in and hop production, the cost per acre of establishing chestnuts does not look outlandish anymore.”

For more information, visit chestnuts.msu.edu.

More from Cracking Open the Chestnut: Growers Take Leap with MSU Advice

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