Jumpstarting a Chestnut Industry in New England | WCAI

Jumpstarting a Chestnut Industry in New England

Aug 20, 2020

In 2018, Jono Neiger planted seven acres of blight resistant Chinese Chestnuts in Western Massachusetts.

“I picked them because they’re a smallish tree crop, they come into production fairly quick—really they’ll start to produce in year four, five, six and then increase from there, and then the per acre number can be quite high from 2,000 to 5,000 pounds an acre, producing this high quality staple crop nut that is basically akin to wheat,” he said.

Jono wanted his farm, Big River Chestnuts, to act as a demonstration site. He says that more than 100 years after the chestnut blight killed off American chestnuts, the United States is the only country that can grow this crop that doesn’t have an established chestnut industry. And until there’s a blight resistant American variety, he thinks planting Chinese chestnuts in New England makes a lot of sense.  

“The Chinese are proven here the Chinese and Chinese crosses. The seedlings are blight resistant. Since they are seedlings there’s a range some of them do still get blight and some are completely resistant. They are very productive and could replace wheat in our diet so instead of needing to till thousands and thousands of acres in the Midwest with this incredibly destructive agriculture in the northeast we could be growing our own staple carb crop.”

It’s an exciting idea. Many European countries call chestnuts “the bread tree,” because the nuts are high in carbohydrates and make excellent flour. Currently New England grows less than 5 percent of the grains we eat here, and almost none of our nuts. To keep well as a staple food, chestnuts require careful storage and some processing.

“The main thing is that chestnuts need to be kept cool, basically refrigerated and even sealed up because they have high water content and they have very low oil they can dry out and go bad.”

Without a fridge chestnuts were preserved historically by making what’s called a husk mound—basically you pile them up still inside the husks and then cover the mound with leaves, ferns, and dirt and keep it damp. Inside the husk mound the nuts ferment and can be stored for months. In the fridge chestnuts keep about 3 months before they start sprouting, or they keep up to a year in the freezer. They can also be cured and dried whole, and then milled into flour. This chestnut flour can be used to make all kinds of familiar foods:

“Everything from sort of tortillas and breads to soups to cakes made with chestnut flour to cakes and cakes and cookies and pastries.”

Credit Jono Neiger

Jono planted his chestnuts in a mixed agro-forestry system—so the chestnuts grow mixed with other fruit producing trees, shrubs, and plants and animals forage underneath them. The idea is to have a place where New Englanders can visit to see what growing chestnuts here might look like.

“This seven acres which is really very small is probably doubled the crops in chestnuts in Massachusetts. So we have a long way to go. There’s a lot of people planting them, there’s I think hundreds and hundreds of trees going in now every year. And we’re hoping to just increase that.”

Jono also works as a landscape design consultant. He says when he talks with landowners about planting chestnuts, some are excited. But many who have large areas of pasture or cleared land that would be ideal for big, widely spaced chestnut groves have spent a lifetime keeping trees out. Forest is the natural landscape in New England, after all, so when you’ve been fighting trees, it’s a hard sell to convince farmers to bring them back in. But Jono Neiger thinks it makes more sense to work with the trees than against them.

Resources Jono Neiger recommends for sourcing Chinese Chestnut seedlings:

Rt 9 Collective in Ohio Perfect Circle Farm in VT University of Missouri