Green Horizons

Volume 20, Number 3
September 2016


Agroforestry

Chestnuts Ripening Across Missouri

By H. E. 'Gene' Garrett | Center for Agroforestry and
By Mike Gold | Center for Agroforestry

Very soon, chestnuts (the Chinese variety) will begin ripening across the Missouri landscape, and the Center for Agroforestry will host its 10th Missouri Chestnut Roast at the Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center near New Franklin. Neither would be happening if the "Center" had not launched a major research initiative on Chinese chestnut in the 1990's. Chinese chestnut is unlike the American chestnut which once dominated eastern forests but fell prey to the chestnut blight, introduced from Asia around 1900. In contrast to this tall, majestic timber species, Chinese chestnut is an orchard species that produces a large, brown, nutritional fruit (nut) that is 99% fat free, low in calories, free of cholesterol and gluten but high in vitamin C and healthy complex carbohydrates. It is one of three major species of chestnut available to help meet a growing market demand in the U.S. The European {E}, Japanese {J} and E x J hybrids are also widely grown in the U. S. (i.e., U.S. West Coast and Michigan), but above average cold tolerance (-20oF) and resistance/tolerance to the chestnut blight make Chinese the best adapted to conditions found in Missouri and surrounding states.

The Chinese chestnut is a small tree rarely reaching heights greater than 40 feet that is initially planted on a 20 X 30 (73 trees/acre) or 30 X 30-foot spacing (48 trees/acre). Depending on initial spacing, after age ~15, this number is reduced to permit all remaining trees to receive full sunlight. Grafted cultivars bear marketable quantities of chestnuts by age 6 to 9, and in good soils with proper management, will yield 1,500 to 2,000+ pounds/acre by age 12 to 15 with a value ranging from $1.50 to $7.00/pound. While many cultivars are available for purchase, the Center for Agroforestry recommends a limited number for Missouri including: 'Qing', 'Sleeping Giant', 'Peach', 'Homestead', and 'Gideon'.

American consumers are still largely unfamiliar with chestnuts, however, market demand for domestically grown chestnuts has increased greatly over recent years. U.S. chestnut growers have more demand than they can supply. In 2013, the U.S. imported approximately 9 million pounds of chestnuts. Currently, only 2.4 million pounds are produced domestically with the majority of the chestnuts consumed coming from China, Italy, and Korea. With strong market trends toward "buy local", this provides a unique opportunity for Missouri growers to enter the market without having to worry about over production.

Chestnuts ready for harvest. UMCA will host its 10th Annual Chestnut Roast on October 8th.
www.centerforagroforestry.org

One of the first commercial chestnut orchards in Missouri was established in 1992 by Senator Kit Bond in Mexico. While the site was less than ideal for the species, (Chinese chestnut performs best in well-drained, loamy to sandy loam soils), his orchard flourished and has provided seed for Forrest Keeling Nursery in Elsberry for many years. This partnership has witnessed a dramatic increase in planting stock sales since the early 2000's as well as a shift in planting stock type being purchased. Current demand has shifted from bare-root seedlings to containerized, grafted cultivars. Since 2007, production and sales of RPM™ (a patented technology) containerized chestnuts has increased by more than 600% and grafted stock by more than 33%, at the Forrest Keeling Nursery. This suggests that landowners are interested in getting into production quickly and are willing to increase their up-front investment costs to achieve early production.

While Senator Bond was one of the early adopters in establishing chestnut, many others have followed with new orchards popping up across Missouri. Lou and Joe Naeger have a 10-acre orchard in St. Genevieve County that has been producing commercial quantities of chestnuts for the past 3 - 5 years with most of their crop being sold in local retail outlets. Steve Shifley, a fellow forester, established his 7-acre orchard in 2005 in Boone County and has been developing local markets in and around Columbia. Not to be outdone by Senator Bond, in 2009 former State Senator Bill Stouffer and his wife Sue Ellen established what has grown to 15.5 acres of chestnut on a 20 X 30-foot spacing in Saline County. To maximize returns, they alley crop (one of five agroforestry practices) with winter wheat and have their entire orchard under fertigation and surrounded by a 10' deer fence. Jody Porter, another recent adopter, has established 7 acres in Douglas County in southern Missouri and his trees, grafted, RPM cultivars planted on a 30 X 30-foot spacing and placed under irrigation, are just beginning to bear. Jody and his wife plan to market locally around Ava targeting the health food market. While we know the location of many Missouri orchards, there are others we are unaware of. If you have an orchard in Missouri or know of someone who does, please contact Caroline Todd in our Center for Agroforestry (573-884-2874 or email: ToddC@missouri.edu).

Indeed, the chestnut season will soon be upon us, chestnuts will be ripening across Missouri and we will be celebrating the dawning of a new Missouri industry, one especially suited to the small family farm.

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