Chestnuts at Red Fern Farm: The Next Regenerative Food Crop

100 Years of Sun's mission: to reintroduce chestnuts, as a marketable tree crop, to the Northeast United States. We envision highly productive, ecologically-sound landscapes that produce food, fuel, and fiber with tree crops. 100 years ago, the United States had a booming chestnut economy. The American chestnut, castanea dentata, was an overstory species from Iowa to Northern Georgia, to Maine. In 1904, a parasitic fungus known as the “chestnut blight” arrived from Japan, and killed as estimated 4 billion trees. 100 years later, Chinese chestnuts and Chinese-American hybrids are blight-resistant, but pure American chestnut stands are few and far between. Pure American chestnuts are beautiful, productive forest trees, but for our purposes, Chinese chestnuts are just as good, if not better for food production.

Red Fern Farm

Red Fern Farm is a 25-year-old chestnut orchard in Wapello, Iowa. Kathy Dice and Tom Wahl own and run the property. Jeremy and I recently visited the farm to learn more about chestnut production. Tom Wahl is an ecologist by trade, and in 1990, saw and foresaw the ecological and culinary benefits of chestnuts in comparison to annual crops such as corn and soy. Often in the regenerative agriculture sphere, figureheads with productive farms like to speak loudly about their operations (which isn't necessarily a bad thing). Kathy and Tom are much more modest, but nonetheless run an extremely productive, profitable business that we should pay attention to.

For the farmers among us, we’d like to go through some of the nuances of chestnut production at Red Fern Farm. We’ll do so with photos.

This is what a chestnut burr looks like. You can reach inside with your fingers to pull the nut out, whack them with a stick, or wait until they fall to the ground.

Red Fern’s Chestnuts are planted at 20x20-ft spacing. Tom had interacted with wider and narrower spacing, and is certain that this is the best option for his context. In China, where labor laws are different to say the least, trees are planted at 3-ft spacing between trees and 7-ft spacing between rows. There, intensive management by hand is economically viable.

These are chestnuts at 20-ft. spacing, with 5-foot-tall Plantra tree shelters around them.

Tom recommended 5-ft. Plantra tree tubes. These tubes let both light and air in, and prevent dear from biting the tops off of the trees. If you'd like to watch a corny, but highly-informative video about the tree tubes, that looks like it was made in 1995, but was actually made recently, see below:

Chestnuts grow in burs until they are ripe and ready to be eaten. The burs open, and the chestnuts drop to the ground. At Red Fern Farm, Chestnuts are harvested off the ground by hand or with a tool called a “nut wizard.

Nuts on the ground. There are many to be found.

Chestnuts are still a traditional food across south Eastern Europe and temperate Asia. Bosnians refugees from the 1990’s drive hours to harvest hundreds of pounds of chestnuts by hand. Koreans and Chinese immigrants from the east coast order nuts online from Prairie Grove Chestnut Growers, an aggregator that we’ll soon walk you through.

Red Fern Farm, in addition to chestnuts, produces pawpaw, persimmon, aronia berry, and honeyberry. Pawpaw and persimmon must be eaten fresh, and cannot be stored unprocessed for a long period of time like apples are. Aronia and honeyberry are niche crops: aronia is a dark, nutrient-dense berry that must also be processed into juices and wines, and honeyberry is an edible honeysuckle, improved in Saskatchewan. It is effectively a blueberry that fruits in June, and we expect it to soon take off as a new crop across the northern United States.

This is a pawpaw. They grow in colder places and taste like a cross between a mango and a banana. They don't stay fresh very well on store shelves, so a commercial industry has yet to take off. In terms of fresh-eating, however, they're fantastic.

The Present Value of Chestnuts

From multiple reputable sources, we’ve been provided with estimates of $10,000 per acre in chestnut revenue, after 12 years, undoubtedly depending on management. Treated as an ordinary annuity at a 6% discount rate, the present value of revenue from 30 acres over the next 30 years would amount to $3.3 million from only chestnuts. This of course does not take into account establishment and management costs, but something that we’ve found in our travels is that agroforestry and row cropping and/or grazing are far from mutually exclusive. Rows of chestnut trees can be planted in between rows of corn, and pastured poultry can be raised in between the rows of chestnuts. The above numbers refer to dense, orchard-spacing of 20 by 20 ft., but chestnuts are prefect tree for farm retrofits. Why not use your grass-fed beef farm's air space, above the pasture? Chestnuts silvopasture at wide spacing can provide excellent, additional yields when the time comes.

Prairie Grove Chestnut Growers

Prairie Grove Chestnuts Growers is a mom and pop operation in Columbus, Junction, Iowa. They are an aggregator for chestnut growers in Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri. They ship all over the country, and are growing rapidly. They run a very straightforward, seasonal business.

At present, Prairie Grove sells to immigrants and non-anglo Americans who either experienced a chestnut culture in their youth or live one through family traditions. They consume, understand, and value chestnuts. Bosnians and Koreans drive six hours to buy chestnuts, and Chinese citizens of New York City order them online. Wholesale prices range from $3-4 per pound for 25-100 lbs of nuts, while upscale grocery stores in Iowa City stock local chestnuts for $10 per pound. If you'd like to read a 188-page PDF about global chestnut culture, you can do so here. If you're as into chestnuts as we are, we should talk for a second. We're all about sharing information, and teamwork makes the dream work.

Chestnuts have a sweet, nutty flavor, and are high in carbohydrate. They are of course gluten-free, and can be eaten raw, boiled, or roasted. They have traditionally been processed into flour. We see opportunities for expansion in added-value chestnut products such as polenta, gnocchi, chestnut chocolate milk, crepes, and baked goods. The possibilities are endless.

These are chestnut-flour crepes I made for Thanksgiving. They taste like heaven.

Why grow chestnuts?

For the time being, I'd like to speak to those that already own, work, or have access to land. Buying land in order to plant chestnut trees on it is not infeasible, but one cannot expect to rely solely on the value of the nuts to cash-flow the business early on. Chestnut trees are like an employee that takes ten years to train, but is then a star for the rest of their life. Fortunately, as we've stated, chestnut trees are a fantastic element to add to an existing operations. The current you-pick price of chestnuts is $2.50/lb. Wholesale is at $3.40, and retail is at $10/lb. It takes about an hour to pick a 5-gallon bucket of nuts by hand. How much is a 5-gallon bucket of zucchini worth? Kale? Apples? Chestnuts are worth your time.


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