Tom Wahl of Red Fern Farm joins co-hosts Jason Fischbach and Jerry Clark to discuss chestnut production.
Recorded September 8, 2020
Jerry Clark, JASON FISCHBACH, Tom Wahl
JASON FISCHBACH 00:00
This is a podcast about new crops. You’re gonna love it. Join us on the cutting edge, a podcast in search of new crops for Wisconsin. (music) Welcome everyone to The Cutting Edge Podcast in search of crops, new crops for Wisconsin. I’m JASON FISCHBACH, one of today’s co hosts and the agriculture agent up in Ashland & Bayfield Counties. And joining me today is Jerry Clark.
Jerry Clark 00:43
Hey, good morning, Jason. Yes., I’m Jerry Clark, a Chippewa County agricultural agent with the Division of Extension in UW-Madison.
JASON FISCHBACH 00:51
Awesome. Jerry, we had frost last night. First time.
Jerry Clark 00:55
Yeah, we’re in that tough. We didn’t have any this far south. I know you’re in the northern border there, Jason. But it’s always that time of year when you don’t know if you should turn the furnace on or not. So you try to suffer through a few cold days until it warms back up again.
JASON FISCHBACH 01:10
Yeah, that’s right. Got to get to October before we turn our heater on.
Jerry Clark 01:13
That’s our rule here, too. So a few of these mornings are a little cool, but…
JASON FISCHBACH 01:17
Jerry Clark 01:17
Yeah, this does feel good.
JASON FISCHBACH 01:19
Well, we’ve got a great episode today. I think chestnuts are one of these things is one of these new crops that have a lot of momentum, there’s a lot of interest. And it’s a crop that we call it new. But you know, the reality is this is probably one of the original crops, if you will for North America in terms of human consumption, chestnuts, especially American chestnut chestnuts used to grow everywhere, not so much anymore because of chestnut blight. But it’s gaining some new excitement, I think, as a crop as some new genetics and pioneering growers are starting to make it a reality. So with that, just want to introduce our guest today is Tom Wahl. He’s the owner of red Fern farm in Iowa, southeast Iowa, and has been growing chestnuts for a number of years, and along with all kinds of other great crops. And Tom’s a true pioneer in trying to help diversify our agricultural landscape. I’ve had a chance to hear Tom talk and interact with him over the years, there’s just a breath of fresh air to have that kind of energy and vision in agriculture, because you know, we sometimes sort of think that there are only X number of crops that can be involved in agriculture. And the reality is our planet is full of all kinds of amazing plants and genetics and, and even our own backyard that we sometimes ignore. So chestnuts is one of those that I’m hoping continues to to grow and develop. So Tom, can you introduce yourself and welcome, I should say, introduce yourself and Red Fern Farm and say a little bit about, you know, how and why you’re involved in chestnuts right now.
Tom Wahl 02:48
Okay. I’m Tom Wahl from Red Fern Farm, as Jason said, as to why I’m growing chestnuts. It’s a really long, boring story. I guess I’ll give you the short version. My background is in natural resource conservation. And I realized early on that most of the problems Natural Resource conservationists have to deal with are a direct result of problems caused by modern industrial agriculture. And I decided agriculture needed to be reinvented. And this is the result.
JASON FISCHBACH 03:33
So what your Red Fern Farm What are you growing these days?
Tom Wahl 03:38
I have to have a list in front of me to cover it all.
JASON FISCHBACH 03:42
Maybe what aren’t you growing? (laughs)
Tom Wahl 03:45
I am not growing fruits and nuts that are not adapted to a temperate climate. So no bananas, no mangoes, no papayas. But virtually every other fruit and nut that will grow in our climate. We’d be at least tried.
Jerry Clark 04:03
So as permaculture is something that we always talk about as far as these perennial trees, plants, is that kind of where your focuses are. Do you plant some annuals as well?
Tom Wahl 04:16
I don’t do much at all with annuals. I do have some perennial vegetables, though. But mostly fruit and nut trees, shrubs and vines.
JASON FISCHBACH 04:31
And are you you involved in? Yeah, tell us more about your business here. I think you’re selling plants in addition to harvesting and selling nuts and fruits too? So tell us more about that.
Tom Wahl 04:43
Yeah, we actually got into the nursery business so that we wouldn’t have to pay so much to plant our trees, shrubs and vines. And then as a natural consequence of being in the nursery business, we started selling nursery stock to other people to help them get started. With perennial crops, our most important crop is chestnuts by multiple orders of magnitude. And also in our nursery business that’s just not nursery stock is the most important more important than all the rest put together by multiple orders of magnitude again.
JASON FISCHBACH 04:43
And so by chestnuts are you talking chineses chestnuts, American chestnuts maybe give us a background on for those that don’t know much about chestnuts? What’s what’s what’s available that can be grown in the Midwest,
Tom Wahl 05:39
Mostly Chinese chestnuts. Also Chinese American hybrids for the the northern edge of the potential commercial chestnut range. We do have a few hybrids that include other species, but by far went away Chinese chestnuts the most important and again, that Chinese American hybrids for extra cold hardiness at the north end of the range.
JASON FISCHBACH 06:09
And are these mainly seedlings meaning grown grown from seed? Are there clonal varieties that are available for growth?
Tom Wahl 06:19
Yes, there are clonal varieties cultivated varieties of grafted trees available. However, those are useful for breeding purposes. But they are not useful for nut production, at least in our area. Seedling trees will out produce grafted trees in our area by 500 to 600%.
JASON FISCHBACH 06:44
Wow, so in Michigan, I think there’s one called colossal if I remember, right? Is that a hybrid variety? Is that chestnut hardy?
Tom Wahl 06:53
Colossal is a hybrid it’s a Japanese European hybrid, Japanese. and European chestnuts and the hybrids between them are really not well adapted to a continental climate. And they are struggling with Colossal in Michigan and I believe they’re phasing it out and looking for alternatives. They should be looking at Chinese chestnuts. But for various reasons, they aren’t. But Chinese chestnut is the one that’s adapted to continental climate. And it’s also the most resistant to the most serious disease pests of chestnuts like chestnut blight and Phytophthora.
Jerry Clark 07:40
So, Tom, are most of your plants going for production, nut production, or some people buying your plants to try to reforest an area? If, or is it mainly just production?
Tom Wahl 07:53
I’m not aware of anyone trying to use Chinese chestnuts to for reforestation, it’s not really an appropriate species for that purpose.
Jerry Clark 08:03
Is there a longevity to the Chinese chestnut as far as how long will that tree survive?
Tom Wahl 08:10
Well, there are Chinese chestnuts in China that are over 1000 years old and still producing big crops and nuts. So yes, just like your American European chestnuts, they are potentially a long list.
Jerry Clark 08:24
Yeah, I was just curious if it’s something just for production, that it’s going to be, you know, a 3050 year tree and then it kind of runs out of gas, kind of like our apple trees tend to do.
Tom Wahl 08:33
No, no, no, nothing like apple trees.
Jerry Clark 08:36
All right. Sounds good.
JASON FISCHBACH 08:37
And how big will the Chinese chestnuts get saying you’re where you’re growing them in Iowa? Guess you don’t know yet?
Tom Wahl 08:46
Ask me in 500 to 600 years, I’ll be able to tell you.
JASON FISCHBACH 08:51
Yeah. All right. So how big are they now? And how old are they?
Tom Wahl 08:55
I think the biggest ones right now are probably between 30 and 40 feet tall and and the same width.
JASON FISCHBACH 09:05
Okay. So there’s they’re a substantial tree. It’s not like a hazelnut bush or something.
Tom Wahl 09:12
Yes, yes. They they will get to be big trees. The literature says they’ll get 40 feet tall and 40 feet wide, but I’ve seen photos of them much, much bigger than that. Not from Iowa. But I think on our Iowa soils. I think they’re going to get even bigger still. Then, then the than the photos I’ve seen.
JASON FISCHBACH 09:34
Gotcha. Okay. All right. So how are they grown kind of walk us through the maybe the first 10 years.
Tom Wahl 09:41
The very first step is to find out if you even have a site suited to chestnuts. They do need a well drained soil on the acid side of the pH scale. And neither of those are negotiable. pH can be amended with soil amendments like elemental sulfur, as long as the pH isn’t too high, but the trees to grow they do need a pH of 6.5 or lower.
JASON FISCHBACH 10:14
Tom Wahl 10:14
And poorly drained soil absolutely does not work. And we found that out definitively last year. Oh, the next step is to find good quality nursery stock and slick, glossy color nursery catalogs are not a good source for that material. And unfortunately, there aren’t, aren’t a lot of good sources for Chinese chestnuts for commercial nut production out there. But there are a few.
JASON FISCHBACH 10:45
Is it typically planted bare root dormant in the spring, or can you plant leave on sometime in the growing season,
Tom Wahl 10:51
You can plant potted nursery stock anytime, between when the frost goes out of ground in spring up until now, till the ground freezes. Although if you plant after mid September, you have to mulch really well with coarse woodchips to prevent frost heaving.
JASON FISCHBACH 11:14
Tom Wahl 11:15
And there’s a lot of discussion and argument over spacing. And I’ve been recommending the spacing of 20 by 20 for many years, because that’s the space in which the chestnut trees will occupy an acre of land. And about the time they’re coming into nut production. But other people are arguing that that space is too close because they have to be thinned. And yes, they do have to be thinned. By the time they’re 20 years old, they have to be thinned to 40 by 40, then they probably have to be thinned again, somewhere around year 50 or 60 then to 80 by 80. And then probably one final thing around year 500. But if you plant them at 40 by 40. To start with, you’ll be losing a lot of nut production in the early years, for two reasons. One, because the trees won’t be occupying the space when they come into production. And also because the pollen doesn’t move very far from one tree to another and they have to have cross pollination in order to reproduce. So the pollination efficiency is much lower at 40 feet than it is at 20 or 30.
JASON FISCHBACH 12:38
Gotcha. So what are what size? Not size but age nursery stock is usually planted these days or what are the nurseries selling? Are these, you know one year old?
Tom Wahl 12:51
Yeah, I think most nurseries are selling one year old nursery stock.
JASON FISCHBACH 12:55
Okay, so if I plant say in the fall one year old stuff when might I expect my first nut crop if all goes well, which it never does.
Tom Wahl 13:07
Well, that’s determined by multiple factors including the genetics of the stock, the type of soil they are planted on, the effectiveness of your weed control. And if and whether or not you’re using a five foot tree shelter, ventilated tree shelter, with a five foot tree shelter, and on a good site with good good weed control and good genetics, you can get nuts in two to four years.
JASON FISCHBACH 13:36
Tom Wahl 13:38
Three to four is average. But occasionally people get nuts in two years. And then you can get your first commercial harvest probably somewhere around year six to eight and then more or less mature level of nut production probably around year 15.
JASON FISCHBACH 13:58
So how about our favorite four letter word in the perennial crop world deer. Do they mow these to the ground or do they just nibble or how bad is it?
Tom Wahl 14:08
Well, if you don’t put a tree shelter on them, they will certainly mow them to the ground. And if you put a four foot shelter on them, they will reach their mouths down inside the top of the shelter and snip them off six inches below the top of the shelter you need an all of five feet tree shelter to keep the deer off of them. Cages can work too. And some people prefer to build a cage around each tree. But cages are extremely labor intensive, much more expensive and they will delay the years to nut production quite a bit with a cage and without a shelter. It will take six to 10 years to see your first nut.
Jerry Clark 15:01
So Tom, what’s being used? Or what’s your recommendation or what’s been what do you see being used for the tree shelter? I mean, what are there’s certain variety or species that are being used there?
Tom Wahl 15:12
The the one I like is made by a company called Plantra. PLANTRA out of the Minneapolis area. They make a shelter that’s really well ventilated. And that is extremely important for chestnuts. Unventilated tree shelters, kill chestnuts.
JASON FISCHBACH 15:33
Got it. So how about fertility? And I guess you know, this is a hard one to answer. But are they corn on nitrogen to get these things grown in the early years or as tree crops, you just kind of let them go once they’re established through the soil.
Tom Wahl 15:49
I think most people don’t do any fertilization. Most chestnut growers aren’t using fertilization, including me, I’ve never deliberately fertilized my chestnuts. I have accidentally, like, I used to grow, or raise turkeys, goats and broiler chickens on pasture. And when I got out of those businesses, I planted the fields, where I used to have those animals to chestnuts. And when the chestnuts started bearing nuts, the ones the trees that were located in the areas where manure was concentrated, had much higher net production than the ones that were planted farther away from where manure was concentrated. But aside from that, I have no experience with fertilizing chestnuts. And I don’t think there’s really any research in North America on the subject. But yes, I’m sure that fertility would increase production. But that said, I’m not sure we really need an increase in production. At least on on the on the best soils, if you’re planting Chinese chestnuts on the best soils in the upper Midwest. In my experience, in my opinion, I think the trees are already about as productive as they can handle. And if we try and increase the production too much the tops of the trees are going to break out from the weight of the nuts.
JASON FISCHBACH 17:33
Yeah, right. Um, so there’s been you know, ups and downs in the performance of the chestnuts with this crazy weather the last five years or maybe a decade or so or… So what’s happening in terms of what waterlogged soils, freeze events; what’s Chinese chestnut susceptible because of the root rot problem phytopthera is a there are there issues just because the pollination window is so sensitive or or what’s what’s, how does Chinese chestnut fair with this crazy weather?
Tom Wahl 18:08
Well, a late frost in the spring can harm nut production, although I’ve never seen it eliminate that production in a year, even in the year 2012. When the trees leafed out two months early and then got nailed by a hard, hard frost. There was still some nut production. A late freeze. I mean, I mean an early freeze in the fall ruined our crop in 2003. I believe that the nuts froze on the tree just before they were ready to drop. And we lost the entire crop that year.
JASON FISCHBACH 18:52
Gotcha. Because you’re harvesting pretty late. Right? You haven’t even started here? We’re at September 8. And when’s the typical harvest season for you?
Tom Wahl 19:00
In an average year, it starts mid September. So we’re really not not late yet. But I think we might end up being late. We’ve had the nuts start dropping as early as September 6, and as late as September 28. So it can vary according to the weather. But a late hard freeze I mean an early hard freeze in September could have drastic consequences to the harvest. But so many cold cold winter temperatures really have not been much of an issue. But the single worst thing that we’ve experienced was just waterlogged soils between September 2018 and July 2019. Our soils were saturated for ten consecutive months and that was really hard on the trees, they survived it. They’re recovering nicely now. But if we’d had another week of rain, it would have been a disaster.
Jerry Clark 20:16
So Tom, do you see that as that the production side of it? Is it driven by a growing degree day is or do you follow those kind of things to kind of estimate when that harvest is or? Or what causes it to be early or late? Or is it just, you know, the nuts get so big and they drop?
Tom Wahl 20:31
In a normal year, it seems to start mid September, but if we have particularly hot weather just leading up to that, that pushes it, the nut drop ahead, maybe early September, if we have cold, cloudy weather leading up to that mid September, then that that can delay the nut drop. That it seems to be the weather toward the end of the, of the… So it’s not so much during the growing season that so much as influences that is maybe right around that harvest then is what you’re Yeah, yes.
JASON FISCHBACH 21:13
Okay. So how are they harvested? Off the ground? I assume three that tall. Are they shaken off?
Tom Wahl 21:21
No, they’re not shaking, the nuts aren’t ready. They’re not ripe until they fall to the ground. And so yes, they are harvested from the ground. And different people have come up with different methods of harvesting. Worldwide, most of them are picked up by hand. We obviously don’t do that so much in the US. So people have come up with machines to help. Some people use a vacuum. Some people use a a motorized harvesting machine. There’s a company called FACMA that makes a chestnut harvester that people are using. But what we found works the best for us is a machine called a nut wizard, which is a wire basket about the size and shape of a football that rolls on the end of a pole. And it’s about 10 times faster than handpicking. And I calculated that five people with nut wizards could stay ahead of the most expensive FACMA machine. And the nut wizards only take two drops of oil per year. And they don’t make any noise. Unless you forget to oil them, then they just squeak. And they pick up the nuts nice and clean. Whereas the Fatma machine picks up dirt, rocks and sticks and burrs. And the nuts have to be cleaned and sanitized if they’re picked up with a motorized machine.
JASON FISCHBACH 23:01
Jerry Clark 23:02
So I just had one quick question on this. Jason. Is that a living mulch underneath the tree? Or does it drop into a weed free plant free area? Or how do you manage the the area where the nuts are gonna drop?
Tom Wahl 23:15
Well, I prefer to have them dropping on grass. That way the nuts stay clean. And there’s a species of grass called creeping red fescue that is slow to establish, but once it’s established, it’s extremely durable, tolerant of heavy traffic. Shade tolerant.
JASON FISCHBACH 23:35
So let’s let’s talk a little bit about post harvest, handling processing. So you’ve, you’re picking them up off the ground, you know, the day off, what do you what are you doing over the next couple of days with those. Can you just throw them in the shed, do they need to start drying? What do you do?
Tom Wahl 23:50
Well, well, we’re doing things a little bit different from most people, we’re having our customers do our harvesting for us, we loan them nut wizards but they come and do the work and immediately take them home with them. And that works great because it eliminates the cost of harvesting and sanitation and refrigeration and packaging and shipping and advertising. And when you eliminate all those costs, the only thing left is profit. And that’s by far and away the most profitable way to produce chestnuts, but other people do harvest them from the ground. And if they’re using a vacuum or Fatma harvester, they have to separate the nuts from debris, wash the nuts, sanitize them, sort them into size categories, and then either sell them immediately or put them into refrigeration.
JASON FISCHBACH 24:54
Okay, so they have to be cooled right after their picked for the most part.
Tom Wahl 25:00
Yes, they should be if they’re going to be stored, they should be stored in refrigeration, as the shell on the chestnut is really thin, and the kernel inside is mostly water. So they can lose moisture very quickly through the shell of the nut. And that’s very expensive water if you’re allowing it to evaporate. So you can slow that by keeping them in refrigeration. They’ll also store a lot longer if you keep them refrigerated.
JASON FISCHBACH 25:29
And is there any husk removal? Is there any husk removal or it’s just it has to be and I guess in the chestnut world, it’s not shelling so much it’s called peeling that right?
Tom Wahl 25:39
Yeah, that’s correct. The shell on the chestut is thin and leathery, like a peanut shell. And we talked about peeling the chestnuts not cracking them or shelling them.
JASON FISCHBACH 25:52
So let’s maybe shift a little bit to the industry and marketing and where you see things going there. So maybe to start off. You know how much chestnut production is there in the upper Midwest, say Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota. Now, what’s the kind of what’s the range of production geographically?
Tom Wahl 26:15
Well, the Prairie Grove Chestnut Growers sold 85,000 pounds of chestnuts in 2018, there was a big drop in 2019, because there was a big drop in production due to the the bad weather, which was pretty much Midwest wide. And I think Prairie Grove chestnut growers, I think sells the vast majority of chestnuts produced in Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri. There’s really not much produced in in Minnesota or what Wisconsin yet, although there’s hope that that can change.
JASON FISCHBACH 26:58
Is that primarily a genetics issue? Or it just hasn’t caught on?
Tom Wahl 27:03
Yeah, I think it’s there just aren’t very many growers in Minnesota or Wisconsin yet, although there are quite a few people who are starting to plant them now, but it’s going to take a while for production to ramp up in those areas. Southeast Iowa had a kind of a big head start a bit over 25 years ago, and I think there are over 200 Farms in Iowa, where that where they have planted chestnuts commercially now. And as far as I know, that’s more than any other state.
JASON FISCHBACH 27:41
Any idea how many acres that might be? I guess it depends on density and all the rest but some ballpark?
Tom Wahl 27:49
Yeah, I it’s probably a couple of 100, at least. But I really don’t have any way of estimating that yet.
JASON FISCHBACH 28:01
Tom Wahl 28:01
And I know who planted them, and how many acres that could cover. But how many of those trees were properly cared for and survived and are going to come into production is anybody’s guess.
Jerry Clark 28:16
I would, I would I would just think in Wisconsin, you mentioned the pH being a little on the acidic side, that tends to be the Jason’s part of the world, our part of the world here in Chippewa County, because to get any kind of production, we’re liming everything to get it get rid of the acidity. So I would think the genetics allow it, this might be a potential for our part of the world here.
Tom Wahl 28:40
Yeah, I think at least the southern third of Wisconsin, it’s certainly viable for commercial chestnut production.
JASON FISCHBACH 28:50
Yeah, it would be interesting to see if you know if the harvest isn’t till mid September. You know, like we said, At the start of the podcast, I just had my first frost. So if we’re talking mid September it might be too far north here. But Wisconsin is a big state from north to south and northern Wisconsin.
Tom Wahl 29:05
Yeah, I don’t think I don’t think chestnut production in the northern third of Wisconsin would be possible at all. And in the central third, probably not commercially viable.
JASON FISCHBACH 29:22
In a note is that is there such a thing as a normal year but in a normal year, what percentage might grade out is extra large versus the other size classes
Tom Wahl 29:31
That is extremely variable according to or determined by the location of where they’re grown, and by the genetics of the tree, and by several other factors also, including the the crop load that was on that tree the previous year, and the soil moisture conditions as the nuts are sizing up. But and that’s changed dramatically over the years. So when the Prairie Grove Nut Growers first started that went by the name of Southeast Iowa Nut Growers, and back then I think we were at around 5%, small 40% medium, maybe 50 or 60% large. And then another very small percentage extra large but as the genetics of the trees are improving, and better and better genetics are coming into production, the percentage of extra large is increasing every year.
JASON FISCHBACH 30:36
So that nurseries that are selling plants, are they saving seed from their best plants or do they have controlled crossing blocks? So they’re selling a full sibling plantings? Are they getting all the material from a private breeder, Mike? I think that’s what you said.
Tom Wahl 30:52
Like said Mike is doing this in his backyard, so he has a few handfuls of nuts of each variety. Not able to supply the whole nursery industry but a lot of the a lot of the best material that’s available now are descendants of of things that Mike Neve, developed over the years.
JASON FISCHBACH 31:14
Okay. And then so the nurseries are saving seed from say those best plants so they’re half sibs, or what are growers getting they’re getting?
Tom Wahl 31:24
Sometimes, sometimes they’re full sibs. But usually they’re half siblings. Okay, got it.
JASON FISCHBACH 31:33
And what what traits are most important, would you say that growers are looking for right now, just overall health and vigor? Are there specific traits in the plants that are desirable right now?
Tom Wahl 31:44
Well, most, most people are looking for large nut size. And larger nuts are more profitable to produce than, than smaller sizes, even though the smaller sizes are actually more in demand with a customer, which, and that’s because smaller nuts are harder to pick up than larger nuts. And you have to pick up more of them before you have a pound up. So even though at Prairie Grove, the medium sized is the most in demand. It’s medium sized nuts are not as profitable to grow as large nuts. They’re still very profitable, though. The only one I would tell people to avoid is small nuts. Because even though there’s a good market for small nuts, they’re so hard to pick up, they take so long to pick up, take so much labor to pick them up. That eats up the profit.
JASON FISCHBACH 32:47
Tom Wahl 32:48
And small nuts do sell for a lower price than the medium, large and extra large.
JASON FISCHBACH 32:55
So where where are they grown across the world right now are their main countries that are growing chestnuts.
Tom Wahl 33:02
China produces around 85% of the world’s chestnuts and always have, the Chinese chestnut is by far and away the number one chestnut in the world commercially. By more than five orders of magnitude more important than all the rest put together. Japanese chestnut is a minor species grown in Japan but the Japanese don’t like Japanese chestnuts. They prefer Chinese chestnuts than the other commercial, chestnut is the European chestnut that’s been in decline for many decades due to chestnut blight. And European chestnuts are gradually being replaced in Europe. And Japanese European hybrids which at least have some resistance to the blight.
JASON FISCHBACH 33:54
How does the you know there aren’t a whole lot of them left, but the American chestnuts. How do those nuts compare to Chinese chestnuts in flavor, size?
Tom Wahl 34:03
The American chestnuts are much smaller. They’re they’re about the size of the smallest Chinese chestnuts. If we mixed American chestnuts in with our production, they would grade out small all the time. They are sweeter than Chinese chestnuts. Their peeling ability and pellicle characteristics are closer to Chinese chestnuts than they are to the Japanese and European. So you can eat like with Chinese chestnuts you can eat the kernel even if the pellicle hasn’t been peeled off. And you can do that with American chestnuts. Whereas the Japanese and European chestnuts have a pellicle that’s thick and leathery and furry and bitter and astringent. So you that pellicle has to be removed for humans to consider the nut edible. And Japanese and European chestnuts have kernel surfaces that make removing that pellicle difficult. Whereas the pellicle comes off easily on Chinese and American chestnuts.
JASON FISCHBACH 35:15
Are they? Are they primarily still eaten as a holiday snack kind of food? Or are they catching on as more mainstream?
Tom Wahl 35:24
Well, it depends on if you’re asking about American, Anglo Americans or ethnic groups from who grew up in other parts of the world where the chestnuts are known and appreciated. The the ethnic customers, eat them whenever they can get them. And not just at holidays, I think probably only Americans are the only people who just want them at Christmas time. And that’s just because of the Christmas song,
JASON FISCHBACH 35:55
Because of Bing Crosby or whoever.
Tom Wahl 35:58
Yeah, it’s funny. And Americans are probably some of the worst chestnut customers in the world. Because they they only want one pound, they only want it at Christmas time. And you have to explain to them what to do with them.
JASON FISCHBACH 36:13
Tom Wahl 36:14
Whereas a Bosnian family will want between 300 and 800 pounds as soon as they can get them, and they know exactly what to do with them. I’d much rather make one 800 pound sale to a Bosnian than 800 individual sales to Americans.
JASON FISCHBACH 36:33
Yeah, right, right. So what is involved with from the customer standpoint, if I were to go to Prairie Grove and buy, not one pound I’m gonna buy 20 pounds, it looks like that’s the minimum. And they come to me in the mail. What do I do next? How do I ensure I get maximum quality out of those,
Tom Wahl 36:52
Well store them in refrigeration, that’s absolutely important. But they’ll arrive in the fresh state. And they really should be cured in order to develop their the maximum flavor and curing involves taking them out of the refrigerator and just exposing them to air at room temperature for a few days to a couple of weeks depending on the size of the nut. And in the curing process, the chestnut will lose up to half of its original moisture content. And the kernel will shrink and go from being rigid like a fresh carrot to being kind of soft and spongy, like a carrot would be if you left it out on your kitchen table for three weeks. And when the when the kernel shrinks and gets soft, that’s when it its flavor is at its best. But they don’t store well that way. So you keep the chestnuts in refrigeration, taking that take them out of their frigerator to cure them and then as soon as they’re cured, consume them immediately. Or you can freeze cured chestnuts and store them long term that way. But you don’t want to freeze fresh chestnuts because that ruins them. We found we found out that in 2003 when he had that hard freeze, wiped out our chestnut crop even the squirrels won’t eat chestnuts that have been frozen.
Jerry Clark 38:35
JASON FISCHBACH 38:37
So are they when is when are they roasted? after they’re cured? When they’re still wet?
Tom Wahl 38:44
Roasted chestnuts will taste best if they’re cured first. Okay, and they’re peeled and then roasted? Yes.
JASON FISCHBACH 38:51
Tom Wahl 38:52
Well so the roasting process that with Chinese chestnuts when you roast them and then open the shell the the the the pellicle or the skin that covers the kernel usually sticks with the shell. So just the roasting process peels them that’s not the case with European and Japanese chestnuts though.
JASON FISCHBACH 39:15
Gotcha. So as the industry it sounds like can sell pretty much everything fresh that you can grow right now but is there some thought about doing the curing selling cured hazelnuts or chestnuts sorry, selling cured chestnuts or even roasted? Pre roasted for the customer just to make it easier for consumers or is there just there’s no need to do it right now because the demand for fresh is so high.
Tom Wahl 39:39
Yeah, the demand for fresh is so high and will be for decades to come. The processing chestnuts just isn’t justified economically right now because for example to make chestnut flour it requires 10 pounds of fresh chestnuts to make four pounds of chestnut flour. And and then the cost of taking those fresh chestnuts and producing flour out of them is high enough that you would have gotten a lot more money, just selling the nuts as they fell from the tree versus converting them into flour.
JASON FISCHBACH 40:21
Well, anytime you can sell water, it’s a good thing.
Tom Wahl 40:24
Yes. And this is very expensive water.
JASON FISCHBACH 40:27
Are there other parts of the country where chestnuts might be grown, you know, say California can grow anything? Can they grow chestnuts? Or do they need a vernalization period?
Tom Wahl 40:38
Yeah, chestnuts. chestnuts are grown in Washington, Oregon and California, pretty much anywhere east of the Great Plains, in the eastern US, and they grow as far south as Tampa, Florida. But south of Tampa. There isn’t enough cold in the wintertime for chestnuts to survive.
JASON FISCHBACH 41:04
Gotcha. And these are all pretty much Chinese chestnuts across the these new these other production regions. Or are some of these Japanese?
Tom Wahl 41:11
Yes. Michigan has been struggling with Japanese European hybrids for about 25 years. And probably will continue to do that for some time to come. But everybody else in the eastern US is growing Chinese chestnuts. There is one, there’s a chestnut called the Dunston hybrid, which is really it’s a Chinese chestnut with a tiny amount of American genetics in it. So technically, it’s it’s a hybrid, but it’s it’s a its characteristics are pretty much pure Chinese. And a lot of people are growing those. But mostly it’s Chinese.
JASON FISCHBACH 41:56
Is is Iowa, the biggest production region still in the US? Are there bigger growers out west.
Tom Wahl 42:03
In terms of the pounds, Michigan and probably California are ahead of Iowa at the moment, but we’re going to catch up pretty quick as the new plantings come into production because there are so many more growers here.
Jerry Clark 42:20
So is there a area? Or if you want to learn more about? Or do you have field days down there? Or, you know, open houses or anything like that? Or is this just, you know, if you’re interested in growing it, you know, they always say contact your extension agent? Well, maybe Jason knows. I know, he knows a lot more than I do. But a lot of us are trying to learn about these crops as we go along or where the potential is. But do you guys offer open houses or is there you know, some trainings or something like that where people can learn a little more about how to grow?
Tom Wahl 42:55
Now the University of Missouri center for agroforestry has a lot of information about chestnut growing. Chestnut Growers of America is another good source of information and Northern Nut Growers Association. We do we used to have field days pretty regularly, but we stopped doing that recently. We still have private tours by appointment but we don’t have any scheduled field days anymore, and probably won’t for a while.
Jerry Clark 43:27
JASON FISCHBACH 43:29
What’s plant availability looking like from nurseries? Is this something where you got to order two years out? Or can you get excited in February and have trees ready to plant that spring? Or?
Tom Wahl 43:39
Well, I can’t I can’t speak for other nurseries. But with our nursery you can start ordering them in late November. And as long as you get them ordered by end of January. You’re probably okay, but we’ve been selling out earlier and earlier every year. And I would guess that other nurseries are doing the same.
JASON FISCHBACH 44:04
And Tom, what specifically are you? Are you selling from the chestnuts? Are these bare wood that you’re digging in the spring? Or are you planting out order and then ship in the fall or?
Tom Wahl 44:14
No? Wait? Well, we don’t ship at all for one thing, where we used to produce bed grown bare root trees, but the demand for the potted trees has been so high that we just never had any seed leftover for producing bare root material. So all of our stock is potted and all of it has to be picked up at the nursery.
JASON FISCHBACH 44:40
Got it. And these are one year old so you plant them in the spring. Ready to?
Tom Wahl 44:44
Yeah, they’re while they’re in a lot of cases they’re only a couple of months old. We start them in late April or early May and the first ones that are ready to plant as early as late May And most of them are ready to go by the end of June. And I’d say about two thirds of them are planted around that time and then the rest are planted around late August early September.
JASON FISCHBACH 45:14
Well, Tom, thanks so much for your time. Hopefully the rain stops here we can all get back outside but.
Tom Wahl 45:19
Yeah, well, well, we actually need the rain.
JASON FISCHBACH 45:22
so Oh, yeah. You guys have had quite a year with twin Did you get the Rachel effects? Are you far enough?
Tom Wahl 45:27
I think that I think we caught the edge of it are winds didn’t get get over 80.
JASON FISCHBACH 45:35
Yeah, between dry and with Rachel and COVID.
Tom Wahl 45:39
We were hit by Duratio 22 years ago, though. A direct hit.
JASON FISCHBACH 45:44
All right, well, so maybe we should say a few words. The perennial farm gathering, I see the Savannah Institute bag there behind you. Sounds like they’re going to do an online version of their perennial farm gathering. For those of you that aren’t familiar Savanna Institute, it’s a nonprofit organization, working to advance agroforestry across the upper Midwest, and you know, a real champion of a lot of these emerging fruit and nut crops, chestnuts, front and center. And they usually do a big conference in December, but because of the COVID restrictions, they’re going to do it all online this year. Virtual and that just gives an opportunity for more people to participate, I think because they want to travel. So anyway, if anyone’s interested, because it’s, it’s always been a great conference to me to learn about this stuff and hear from all the people involved in all these cool new crops, so hopefully, people can join that. Well, with that, Tom, thank you. (Music). Brought to you by the University of Wisconsin Madison Division of Extension.