Modeling Excellence

Written by Kerri Lotven on .

In the agriculture wing of Marshall High School, bright bulletin boards in national blue and corn gold adorn walls displaying pictures and calendar events. In the classrooms and shops, FFA students are welding, listening to instruction, taking tests and perfecting their projects.

These could be scenes from any high school ag program, but there’s something extra- special going on in these halls. In fact, the Marshall FFA chapter made history this fall when it became the first-ever two-time winner of the Model of Excellence award—the highest honor awarded to a high school FFA chapter by the National FFA Organization.

To earn this accolade, a chapter must “exhibit exemplary qualities in all categories of growing leaders, building communities and strengthening agriculture,” according to the National FFA Organization. Marshall FFA received its first Model of Excellence recognition in 2015 and is the only chapter to have been named a national finalist for the award six times and to take the top honor more than once.

The 2017 award was presented Oct. 26 at the 90th National FFA Convention and Expo in Indianapolis. On the stage that day, the lights were bright, said Marshall FFA Parliamentarian Jacob Hall, and he couldn’t see beyond the first 10 rows in the auditorium full of 60,000 people. But when the chapter was called as the overall winner, he said it was a “whirlwind of different emotions.”

“Adrenaline, happiness, joy—it was such an amazing experience,” Hall said. “When we gave our presentation the previous day, we walked out of the room and knew that we’d done all that we could do. If it was ever our time, that was going to be it.”

So what is it about this FFA chapter that sets it apart from the rest?

One of the most marked differences is that any student enrolled in an agriculture class at Marshall High becomes part of FFA, so the chapter is 164 members strong. Because all ag students are members, they all have the opportunity to share ideas for their chapter’s program of activities (POA). That type of involvement gives the students a vested interest in the outcome of those activities, said Bailey Souder, a senior and FFA co-reporter.

“We stand out because of the way we set up our POA,” Souder said. “We make sure that every individual in FFA is involved. We give every class three activities to plan. By doing that, we get more kids excited about our activities and the things we do. It helps get the rest of our students [in our school] and our community excited, too. That’s what we want, because we genuinely enjoy everything that we do.”

This method ensures fresh ideas emerge every year, Souder added. Out of the 15 activities the Marshall chapter was required to include on the Model of Excellence application, 14 were new from the previous year.

“Pretty much all of our ideas are student-driven,” said FFA President Taylor Petzoldt, a senior. “It’s how we always have new, amazing activities because we get input from the kids as young as the freshman all the way to seniors.”

The Model of Excellence award may be just a symbol of recognition—a pat on the back for a job well done—but the true success is measured in the services the students and their advisors provide to their community and their peers.

One example is the annual Veteran’s Day assembly they host schoolwide, from pre-k to 12th grade. In 2017, the FFA chapter honored more than 500 veterans in the community. Another example is the “I Believe” campaign, in which the students made blankets, hosted a book drive and then donated the goods to pediatric cancer patients. Then there’s the kindness campaign, which focused on making the school a supportive place for everyone. Other service projects have included the “Operation Beautiful” campaign, which focused on positive self-image, and the “Little Lunkers” program, in which students taught preschoolers to fish.

The list goes far beyond simple application requirements, said Advisor Tyler Burgin, who works alongside three other ag teachers: Emily Reed, Matt Hart and Callie Dobbins.

“Some of the ideas are curricular, and some have ties to agriculture,” Burgin said. “In our community, even something like positive self-image has ties to agriculture.”

This program model gives the students a sense of ownership, he added, and their actions have impact.

“It usually starts with just one idea,” Burgin said. “Then we try to add meat to it—another component like ‘How can we reach more people?’ Or we look for an avenue that would make it unique or beneficial to the community.”

Marshall ag students say their FFA experiences have been invaluable to their education and future plans.

“I think the impact that FFA had on me is pretty consistent with all students,” Petzoldt said. “My biggest thing was gaining public-speaking skills and the confidence to take on leadership roles. All of our activities in some way or another benefit the community or other students, so it allows us to get a little more responsibility while giving back.”

Much like the many jobs in agriculture, there’s an array of skills members can attain through FFA. Students typically walk away from their experience in Marshall with a number of tools to use both on and off the farm, from public speaking to finance to welding.

“FFA is one of the only student organizations that can truly say it’s leadership and career readiness-oriented,” Burgin said. “Even if it’s just for networking or being able to list an FFA proficiency award on their resume or job application, someone in that office is usually going to know the value of FFA.”

Not only does Marshall FFA foster a sense of community and service, but students also describe a feeling of “home.” Their work has inspired more than one student to choose agriculture for their profession.

“I’ve decided I want to be an ag educator,” Hall said. “I have the best examples in the entire world right here at my school. They make me want to come to school every day, and the three hours I’m in my ag classes are going to be three good hours. We always know that they are going to be behind us 100 percent, and that’s what I want to be able to do. I want to influence hundreds of students throughout my career in becoming the next generation of agriculturalists.”

Not only does the national FFA organization take note of what the Marshall chapter is doing, so does the agriculture community.

“I don’t know if the teachers realize it, but the community saw that [award] and recognized they’ve got something going on that others don’t,” said Matt Riley, whose son, Jaden, helps manage the family beef herd as part of his FFA supervised agricultural experience (SAE). “They’re doing something right.”

Because the students have so much say in how the program runs, the program is constantly evolving, but Burgin said the goal is always more new activities and a bigger impact every year.  

“The program has a chance to change based on the kids’ interests,” Burgin said. “My sophomore class is very strong in SAEs, so they’re showing livestock and working in lawn care, while the seniors are very much speech and leadership kids. The junior class is a little bit smaller, but they want to be part of everything. They may try a leadership contest but also be on an agronomy team.”

No matter what the activity, it will always be about the students, Burgin added.

“If we didn’t have quality kids, we wouldn’t have quality activities,” he said. “Not everyone participates in everything, but everyone contributes to something.”

Navigating MFA through challenging times

Written by Allison Jenkins on .

People, operations and financial strength are the foundation of MFA Incorporated’s continued success despite uncertainties in the agricultural economy.

That was the overall message from leaders at MFA’s 2017 Annual Meeting, held Nov. 28 at the Holiday Inn Executive Center in Columbia.

“Looking back at 2017, did we build for the road ahead? Did we make progress toward sustainable success?” asked CEO Ernie Verslues in his address. “Yes, I believe our efforts leading up to and including this past fiscal year have put this company on a solid foundation. There is still more work to be done, but we have a strong base from which we continue to build.”

More than 600 delegates, employees and special guests attended the meeting, which featured exhibits by MFA’s operating divisions, MFA Oil and the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

In his remarks to the audience, MFA Board Chairman Don Mills said the cooperative’s leadership and employees took the challenges of the past year and steered MFA to “respectable results.” Pre-tax profits in 2017 were $10.2 million, an improvement of $5.6 million over 2016. MFA will return $6.3 million to member-owners in cash patronage and equity retirement.

“I think it is fair to say that much of the past year’s success comes from foresight and the offering of products and services that truly make a difference in how we farm,” he said. “I can tell you, as a farmer, it was more fun to look at profitability and balance sheets just a few years back. But I think you’ll see that MFA is on solid footing and poised to continue its mission to provide the value-added products, services and expertise that benefit us as member-owners.”

Mills also credited MFA employees for contributing to the company’s success.

“As a farmer-customer, I appreciate good employees. As a corporate board member, I see the absolute necessity of good employees,” Mills said. “I consider MFA’s employee workforce second to none. These are the hardworking folks who make MFA what it is. They continually look for ways that help MFA help farmers. They put in the hours at planting and harvest. They deliver feed in the snow and cold. And they do it with a smile and pride in the company.”

Mills, who completed the last of his four terms as a director, said he’s proud of the decisions made during his 12 years on the MFA Incorporated board. For example, he pointed out he’d been involved in hiring two CEOs and authorizing the cooperative’s largest capital expenditure in its history with the Hamilton Rail Facility.

“This company hasn’t been here for 104 years without having good leaders, and serving on the board has been one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Mills said. “MFA is a great company with wonderful people. We’ve gone through some really good times, and we’re in a tough economy right now, but the company keeps going and keeps growing.”

Keeping pace with change

Verslues also acknowledged agriculture’s downturn, but said he was optimistic about the future and what MFA and its members can accomplish together.

“Our competitive advantage comes from attracting, developing and retaining the best people,” he said. “When it comes to products, services and solutions, we are a proven leader in bringing innovation and technology to the marketplace.”

Specifically, Verslues cited the new MFA Rail Facility in Hamilton, MorSoy and MorCorn proprietary brands of seed and the latest technologies in crop protection and precision agriculture as examples of MFA’s commitment to providing value and benefits to farmers. Though they’re smaller in volume, MFA’s livestock divisions are “key contributors to the overall value we provide to you, the member,” Verslues said. Fiscal 2017 brought exciting developments for MFA livestock customers, he added, including new products with Shield Technology, the Health Track program’s partnership with ABS Global and the launch of the PowerCalf mobile app.

MFA’s plan to navigate the road ahead includes finding ways to grow the company, being a leader in innovation and technology, focusing on data management and looking for efficiencies in product and service offerings to the customer as well as internal operations, Verslues said.

“It would be hard to argue that any industry has experienced more change than agriculture the last 10 years, and the pace of change is projected to increase in the immediate future,” he said. “We must embrace this change to shape the future we desire. If we don’t, we may not like the future we get.”

Building financial strength

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Raetz shared financial highlights of MFA’s 2017 fiscal year, which ended Aug. 31. Consolidated sales for MFA’s business entities were $1.23 billion, representing figures from MFA Incorporated and MFA Enterprises.

In 2017, MFA Incorporated’s cooperative business reached $1.04 billion in sales. MFA Enterprises, a wholly owned subsidiary of MFA Incorporated, had $185 million in sales. Formed in 2001, MFA Enterprises represents non-cooperative expansion in southern Iowa, southeast Kansas, west-central Missouri and northwest Missouri.

Joint ventures include AGRIServices of Brunswick, Cache River Valley Seed, Mid-State Seed and Alliance Animal Care. MFA holds a 50-percent ownership in these companies. The cooperative also has 45-percent stake in Central Missouri AGRIService. Together, the joint ventures delivered $398 million in sales this year.

Greater grain volume is a primary driver of MFA’s sales increase, Raetz reported. At $482 million, grain sales increased 27 percent over last year.

“We handled 75 million bushels in 2017, the second-largest number of bushels in company history,” he said. “We were blessed with a bountiful harvest last fiscal year and this year, too. With the Hamilton Rail Facility coming online, we anticipate handling 92 million bushels of grain in 2018.”

Reviewing financial performance by category, Raetz reported that field crop sales were $582 million, a decrease of $12 million, and livestock supply sales were also down $11 million to $158 million. However, he pointed out, volume tells a different story.  

“There’s no need to worry about decreasing sales dollars,” he said. “A commodity-based business like ours will ebb and flow with the market. I believe that the volume numbers show we are growing or maintaining market share in our territory.”

On the crop side of the business, plant food tonnage increased slightly, but sales dollars decreased $22 million due to lower selling price for fertilizer. MFA’s MorSoy and MorCorn continue to make up a larger portion of seed sales. Crop Protection sales dollars also increased 6 percent this fiscal year.

In the livestock sector, the majority of the sales decline was in Feed, Raetz explained, although Animal Health and Farm Supply sales also decreased slightly.

“If you think back to last year, we entered the fall with an abundance of hay and grass and had one of the warmest winters in recent history,” he said. “Those two factors are what I would call a perfect storm for our Feed Division. It’s hard to sell feed when there’s plenty of hay and no winter. There is no question, however, that we are the market leader in our trade territory, and we have high-quality products that set us apart from our competition.”

Total margins and operating revenues were $219 million, an impressive increase of $14 million from fiscal 2016. Joint venture earnings were $3 million compared to $2.5 million last year. Working capital was $80 million at year end.

Total assets at the end of August were up slightly to $479 million, due mainly to the increase in capital expenditures related to the MFA Rail Facility.

“It’s a pretty simple equation,” Raetz said. “The more we earn, the more we can afford to invest back into the business.”

Raetz reported that MFA Incorporated has long-term debt of $82 million, including a term loan with CoBank, which financed the rail project, and the MFA Bond Program, which is unsecured debt.

Total net worth increased to $164 million, divided into non-cooperative earnings at $108 million and member equities of $56 million.

“As a company, we are optimistic going into fiscal 2018 and beyond,” Raetz said. “Next year’s plan reflects net income before taxes of $10.2 million, but our expectations are always higher. We continue to set goals and develop operating plans to target growth and ensure the continued financial strength of your cooperative.”

Making your voice heard

Among special guests in attendance was Missouri Director of Agriculture Chris Chinn and several of the department’s leaders, who gathered feedback from farmers through a short survey at their booth. MFA’s annual meeting was the first stop on the Department of Ag’s “Reach MORE” tour.

“For us, being part of this meeting is all about seeing the farmers and ranchers,” Chinn said. “It’s hard for them to get to us, so we came to them. We wanted to get input on what they’d like to see at the next Governor’s Conference on Agriculture and get their opinions about what we can do to improve our service to them. We are their department, and we want them to help shape our path going forward.”

Farm broadcaster Max Armstrong, host of “This Week in AgriBusiness” television show and “Farm Progress America” and “Midwest Digest” radio programs, was the keynote speaker and conducted on-camera interviews with key MFA personnel as part of the pre-meeting activities. He said he welcomed the chance to be part of MFA’s meeting and connect with the cooperative’s members.

“This is like coming home for me,” Armstrong said. “I really enjoy warmth of the growers and the opportunity to visit with them and find out what’s going on. They share the challenges and successes of the past year and how they see the landscape around them.”

In his address, Armstrong encouraged the audience to make their voices heard to lawmakers, especially as key legislation such as NAFTA and the Farm Bill are being considered.

“It’s absolutely critical that we be engaged in the political process,” Armstrong said. “So many winds of change are buffeting Washington right now. I know it’s not easy for those of us in agriculture to get involved in politics. We can’t envision ourselves being lobbyists or politicians, but we can all play a role by keeping the line of communication open to our lawmakers to make sure our story is getting out there.”


Dec2017Jan2018 Today's Farmers Magazine

Written by webadmin on .

In-season insights

Written by Kerri Lotven on .

Every morning, MFA Crop-Trak Consultant Kevin Runde gets in his truck and heads to his first field. He’ll be in that same field on that same day every week throughout the growing season, rain or shine.

In the early spring, he’s out in the fields before they’re planted, checking weed pressure and soil conditions. Once the seed is sown, he evaluates stand counts and looks for emergence problems. Starting in early summer and all through the growing season, he scouts for insect pressure and disease. And every week, he provides the producer with a report of what he’s seen. It’s Runde’s responsibility and the job of all MFA Crop-Trak consultants across the trade territory to be the producers’ eyes in the field and ensure that they are aware of anything that could affect their crop’s performance.

If something requires remedy, he will recommend how to fix the issue.

“We’re independent scouts making unbiased recommendations based on sound agronomics,” Runde said. “It’s important for people to know we’re not trying to sell anything. We just want to make sure the producer is aware of what’s going on in their fields and can address any problems if needed.”

David Cottrill, who farms 1,200 acres near Albany, Mo., has been enrolled in the Crop-Trak program since its inception in 2006.

“He’s out there when I wouldn’t be,” Cottrill said of Runde. “I’ve seen him out there when it’s so muddy that I wouldn’t do it, and it’s my crop. But, that’s the thing, too many times a producer will say, ‘I’ll check it next week. It will be fine until then,’ and the next thing you know, you’ve got problems that you can’t control.”

A lot can happen in a week, MFA Senior Staff Agronomist Jason Worthington said.

“There are a huge number of variables that can only be addressed by somebody being in your field week after week,” he said. “Crop-Trak creates a partnership between MFA and growers to help those growers be more successful.”
Crop-Trak consultants like Runde are expected to make recommendations based on five considerations: agronomic principles, stewardship, grower’s expectations, grower’s logistics and economics. These recommendations are their own, and they are expected to put the grower’s best interest above all else.

Cottrill said he’s experienced this first-hand.

“Kevin looks after the producer,” Cottrill said. “There has been a time or two where we were going to do something, and he didn’t think economically that it would pay, so he recommended not to do it.”

Last spring, Runde’s presence in Cottrill’s fields on one day in May more than paid for the cost of the service, the producer said. He typically applies in-furrow fungicide/insecticide every year, and said he’s never had an issue with insects before. But this past season, cutworms moved in anyway, and Runde caught the issue before too much damage had been done.

“He recommended that we fly on an insecticide, and that took care of it,” Cottrill said. “Every year there’s something that he catches, whether it’s insects, weeds or stand count, that pays his fee.”

Since 2006, the Crop-Trak program has grown exponentially. In the beginning, the program had roughly 200 acres enrolled. In 2017, Worthington reported over 200,000 acres scouted. He attributes that growth to the thorough, unbiased credibility of MFA’s Crop-Trak consultants and the preemptive approach they take in identifying issues before they become something that will affect the producer’s potential yield.

“There is an obvious need for increased field surveillance,” Worthington said. “There are plenty of people in this industry who will go look in a field when someone asks them to, but by partnering with our growers on recommendations and providing them with this level of agronomic observation, we’re able to take a proactive role in finding solutions before the problem gets out of hand.”

Preventing problems that could potentially impact a producer’s bottom line takes diligence and a good foundation, Runde said.

He starts with a cropping plan prior to planting, meeting with growers to figure out when they intend to plant, who their applicator is, and the current level of fertility in their fields. Runde begins looking at weed pressure and putting together burndown and residual herbicide recommendations to make sure the field is clean prior to planting. Once the field has been planted, he scouts each week until it is no longer economical to make further applications. Most days, Runde says he spends approximately 45 minutes scouting per field, checking stands and weed, disease and insect pressures. At that rate, he averages about 2,000 acres a day.

“It’s the most thorough scouting service out there,” Runde said. “We manage these fields year-round, and it’s our full-time job to be in them. A lot of other companies have managers scouting fields in addition to all their other duties, but they can’t do what we do because they just don’t have the time.”

As the general manager of the Northwest MFA Agri Services group, which encompasses the Maryville, Guilford and Conception Junction locations, Jeff Meyer understands that time crunch. During planting and harvest, his days are busy and long. Meyer said one of the biggest benefits of Crop-Trak is that it lets him know what is going on in the field on a weekly basis when he doesn’t have time to get out there himself.

“I get a field-by-field report from Kevin when he has scouted for one of our growers,” Meyer said. “During those busy times especially, it’s hard for me to get away. I’m coordinating trucks and sprayers and spreaders among everything else. It’s a big plus to have someone out there walking those fields who knows what to be on the lookout for during any given time of the season.”

Every time Runde scouts a field, he prepares a detailed report that includes photographs for the grower, outlining the field conditions and any recommendations. With the grower’s permission, the MFA location manager also gets a copy, which Meyer said makes it easier for him to schedule applications.

“A lot of times, there’s a sweet spot with these applications,” Meyer said. “When Kevin sends me his reports, I can then follow up with the growers and steer them in the right direction if there’s something that we need to get to right away. It adds value to the grower to know that we’re getting the right products at the right time on the right acre.”

And as farms grow, their needs change, Meyer said. Ultimately, he sees the Crop-Trak program expanding in his area.

“There are a few operations around here that are getting bigger,” Meyer said. “It gets more and more difficult to intensively check your fields as you have more acres to cover. I hope that growers will look to us when that happens.”
An early advocate for Crop-Trak, Cottrill said he won’t go back to scouting on his own.

“Kevin’s an honest guy,” Cottrill said. “He wants what’s best for the producer. He catches insect pressures quicker than I would ever catch them and lets me know when we need to be spraying for bugs. A lot of times, he’ll be checking corn counts while we’re still planting beans, and if we have somewhere that’s short, we can go back in and replant it. He saves me yield in that instance just by getting it re-planted in a timelier manner than I would if I were doing it myself. I would rather cut back on my other expenses than do away with this, because it pays every time.”

For more information on the Crop-Trak program, contact your MFA location or visit online at https://mfa-inc.com/PrecisionAg/Crop_Trak.

Championing chestnuts

Written by Kerri Lotven on .


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.


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