In the same river hills where Missouri grapes flourish, a lesser-known favorite offers a virtually untapped industry for farmers. The Chinese chestnut tree thrives in the fertile, well-drained, loess soils that roll along the upland ridgetops adjacent to the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
Continued research of University of Missouri Center of Agroforestry scientists has determined that chestnuts are not only an economically viable option for the family farm, but they may also have the capacity to become a major Missouri industry.
“The real reason for being for the Center for Agroforestry is to try to find alternative crops for the family farm,” Dr. Michael Gold, interim director of the Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center (HARC), said. “There’s always been interest in the state for walnuts, and highway 24 is also on the northern edge of the natural pecan range, but the real winner with the possibility to build a strong industry in Missouri is the Chinese chestnut.”
HARC was established in 1953 near New Franklin, Mo., as one of the outlying farms of the University of Missouri. For its first 40 years, the farm consisted primarily of fruit trees, small fruits, turfgrass and tomatoes.
In the early 1990s, according to Gold, they began joining forces with the Center for Agroforestry. The work of the Center now heavily dominates the farm, and for 20 years, researchers have been investing a lot of time and research into nut breeding.
In 2009, former Missouri State Senator Bill Stouffer and his wife, Sue Ellen, made the decision to retire from commodity farming and move into specialty crops. Stouffer was elected to state senate in 2004, and for his first three years in office, he and Sue Ellen maintained their 2,500 acres of row crops and 200 head of beef cattle. But, as the couple looked into the future, they realized it would be too much for them to continue managing full time. Stouffer, who also is a former MFA Incorporated director, said he’d been watching the research coming out of HARC and was looking for a long-term solution for their 133-acre homestead, Cedar Hill Farms. Economically, for their situation, chestnuts made the most sense.
“I wanted to find something that would sustain the farm without being a burden on the kids or grandkids,” Stouffer said. “This will allow the farm to support itself and be an asset. If they want to manage it, they can, or if they want to hire professional management, there will be enough income here to do that.”
It was admittedly a change for them, Sue Ellen said.
“It’s definitely a different kind of farming than we’ve ever done,” she said. “I laughingly tell everybody that we traded in our air-conditioned tractors and combines for a hoe.”
In their first year of chestnut growing, the Stouffers planted 250 trees on five acres. Since then, their orchard has grown to 1,400 trees spanning 20 acres. They also established five acres of elderberries on the land that wasn’t as optimal for chestnuts.
In the past, they’ve intercropped pumpkins through the orchard, but this year they’ve planted winter wheat. Intercropped wheat yields average about 70 bushels per acre.
“The wheat uses the moisture in the spring when the trees don’t need it,” Stouffer said. “And then we mulch the straw. That ground cover keeps the moisture from escaping, and it doesn’t compete with the trees. It’s a good complement to the orchard, and it’s a way of making some income off the land while your trees are growing.”
The Stouffers’ orchard is made up of many of the same chestnut varieties that also grow at HARC. Out of 65 varieties tested over the years at the Center, six to eight cultivars have emerged as standouts for production, taste and quality. To establish their orchard, the Stouffers worked with now-retired master grafter, Dr. Ken Hunt. He took scion wood (branches cut during winter dormancy from the trees at HARC), and grafted them to rootstock the Stouffers had planted. The grafting process speeds chestnut production by roughly three years, and the “new” tree is a genetic copy of the proven variety.
Still, Gold said it takes 10 to 12 years for a grafted tree to reach full production, and planning a chestnut orchard takes a lot of consideration. Chestnuts require full sun. HARC recommends planting on a 30x30-foot grid, which typically amounts to about 50 trees per acre. Though not vital, irrigation is also recommended for consistent crop production.
The Stouffers have established their orchard by the book with just a few modifications to HARC guidelines. For example, their orchard has the recommended trickle irrigation system installed, but they are using fertigation methods to apply nitrogen. Their trees are spaced on a 20x30-foot grid, and they’ve offset their planting to maximize acreage. When the branches begin touching, Stouffer will follow HARC’s recommendation to remove some trees to help those remaining to increase production. Because of their sunlight requirements, pruning chestnuts in this way is critical as they age, Gold said.
“I’ve seen these trees at 50 and 60 and 70 years old,” he said, “where there are maybe only 12 per acre, but they’re big and they’re producing 300 pounds per tree.”
Like raising any crop, chestnuts have their challenges. Japanese beetles riddled the leaves of nut orchards this year in much the same way they plagued soybean fields across Missouri, and the Stouffers sprayed pesticides to help prevent damage. Blossom end rot, which is a fungus that blackens chestnut burs and kernels, can affect yield, but typically resulting loss is not substantial. Missouri chestnut growers have been vigilantly scouting for a chestnut weevil, but Stouffer says all of these problems are controllable.
“They’re not as susceptible to many things as some other crops are,” he said. “Everything’s manageable.”
Likewise, Chinese chestnuts are resistant to the blight that has decimated the eastern chestnut forests of their American brethren for over 100 years. The fungal pathogen known as Cryphonectria parasitica is thought to have been brought into the United States in the early 1900s on an Asian chestnut species imported into the Bronx zoo. But, the Chinese chestnut co-evolved with that same blight on its native continent and is highly resistant to the strain.
“We have blight in these soils,” Gold said. “We have tested some European-Japanese hybrids that typically grow on the U.S. West Coast where they don’t have blight. Some of those have succumbed to it, which is fine, because we want to know that whatever Mother Nature has in store for these trees, they can make it.”
From mid-September to mid-October, the Stouffers and workers at HARC are in the orchards daily harvesting the nuts that have dropped. Chestnuts are best fresh, and a mature tree can produce anywhere between 50 to 100 pounds of nuts.
The Stouffers harvest their crops themselves by hand. Together they wash, package and ship their chestnuts to consumers across the U.S. In their eighth year since the initial planting, the trees produced 3,000 pounds of nuts, which they said is an exponential increase over the previous year’s harvest of 1,000 pounds.
“Conservatively, we estimated 50 pounds of nuts per tree at maturity,” Stouffer said. “But it’ll likely be more around 70 pounds. HARC has some trees that are doing somewhere in the range of 100 to 120 pounds per tree.”
With their current 1,400 trees, that kind of production could result in anywhere from 70,000-140,000 pounds of chestnuts a year. When their trees mature to that point, the Stouffers said they may hire additional help or purchase specialized equipment. HARC recently invested in a pull-behind chestnut harvester made by an Italian company called FACMA.
“When we’re researching our cultivars, we have to go under each tree and hand harvest with a Nut Wizard because we have to know exactly what each variety is going to yield,” Gold said. “But, we’ve had to test everything to know what works best—irrigation, spacing, mechanical harvesting versus harvesting by hand.”
At the cost of $30,000, the mechanical harvester will pick up 1,000 pounds in an hour. Minus the cost of the equipment, which Gold says isn’t really necessary until a grower is producing tons per acre rather than pounds, it is relatively inexpensive to get into the chestnut business compared to more traditional farming methods. HARC has estimated the cost of establishing 50 trees on one acre of land at approximately $3,200. Twelve years later, that same acre could be grossing $10,000 a year on average if the market remains the same.
In addition to all the other research done at the Center, Gold and his team have also developed chestnut nutrition studies and a financial decision tool and conducted extensive market research. Gold said the fastest-growing chestnut industry is along the eastern edge of Lake Michigan in an area known as the “Fruit Belt.” Because of sheer landmass in Missouri’s river hills and superior climate, however, Gold thinks the Show-Me State has the capacity to greatly surpass Michigan’s production.
Additionally, demand for chestnuts in the U.S. exceeds supply, with average retail prices between $4.50-$8.00 per pound.
“We’ve barely touched the demand from the average American,” Gold said. “If you’re from China or Japan or southern Europe, you know chestnuts from your parents and grandparents. But, many of us who have been here for 100 years or more, coming from western Europe or elsewhere, we don’t know them. We know the song, but we may have never tasted them and don’t know how to cook with them. As people are more and more exposed through chestnut roasts and things like that, people are willing to pay $6 per pound for a festive holiday.”
Though a potential boon by all accounts for Missouri farmers, a chestnut orchard is a long-term investment, the Stouffers warn.
“I guess the advice I’d give people who may consider entering the market is that you have to be patient,” Sue Ellen said. “It’s not like corn or soybeans. You’re not going to get a crop the first year. You’re not going to get a crop the second year. You may get a very small crop the fifth year.”
And her husband agrees.
“There’s a Chinese proverb about when the best time is to plant a tree,” Stouffer said. “The answer is 20 years ago, and if you didn’t do it then, you need to do it today.”
For more information on chestnut growing, nutrition, recipes and products, visit centerforagroforestry.org.
To learn more about the Stouffers’ chestnut operation, visit cedarhillfarms.com.