The Chinese chestnut, a crop that is largely unknown to Americans since the near extinction of the American chestnut forest from chestnut blight. Today, chestnut shows excellent potential for Missouri/Midwestern landowners as a cash income crop, with growing demand exceeding supply.
The University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry (UMCA), Columbia, Mo., is working to establish a viable chestnut industry, focusing its efforts on three key areas: national market research, production techniques/orchard management and increasing consumer demand and awareness. The long term objective is to change the image of chestnuts from that of a holiday tradition to a healthy year round food. The outcome of this effort will be an active program that reaches out to potential producers and establishes a multi-million dollar chestnut industry within the state of Missouri and surrounding states.
|The University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry Chestnut Roast is an opportunity to expand consumer and landowner interest in this
agroforestry crop. Free fresh roasted chestnuts are a highlight of the annual event. (Photo courtesy UMCA)
UMCA Approach to Chestnut Market Development
- Develop US consumer market to stimulate demand for chestnuts and chestnut products.
- Introduce chestnut to US consumers as a "new" crop
- Increase consumer demand to provide growers with the motivation to increase productive acreage to meet the demands of the marketplace
- Provide growers with the best production and management information including cultivars best adapted to Missouri/Midwest growing conditions.
Many people are familiar with the American Chestnut tree, once an abundant source of lumber and nut production across the southeast and eastern regions of the U.S. According to the American Chestnut Foundation, many of the dry ridgetops of the central Appalachians were so saturated with chestnut trees that in early summer, when their canopies were filled with white flowers, the mountains appeared snow-capped. In addition to harvesting the tree for lumber, rural communities stored hundreds of pounds of chestnuts for livestock feed and selling to consumers, making the nut a substantial source of economic viability. Unfortunately, in 1904, the chestnut blight (introduced from Asia) was discovered in the American Chestnut tree, and the species was eliminated from the American forest by 1950. All that remains are root sprouts and small trees that succumb to blight before they ever reach commercial size.
However, Missouri soils and climate are excellent for production of the sweet, starchy and versatile Chinese varieties of the chestnut, which can be planted in an orchard or alley cropping practice. The Chinese chestnut trees are blight-resistant, much smaller in structure than the American Chestnut, and spread outward like a large fruit tree while producing a significant quantity of nuts. In addition, chestnuts provide excellent food for wildlife and can be utilized as savory feed for gourmet pork production. The nuts are low in fat and high in vitamins, and items like baking flour made from chestnuts are emerging to meet demand in the gluten-free and restricted diets market.
In the Midwest, selected Chinese chestnut cultivars (not seedlings) begin bearing commercial quantities of nuts between ages 6 and 9. Planted at 30' x 30' spacing, and bearing 15-30+ pounds per tree by age 10, production can reach 1,000 pounds of nuts per acre. Fresh chestnuts can bring $2 to $6 per pound to the grower, with additional market potential for value-added products such as frozen, peeled kernels.
Evaluating Market Potential
Last year, through a national market survey, UMCA contacted chestnut producers, processors, distributors, retailers and others involved in the chestnut industry to glean additional insights into the emerging chestnut market for the Midwest. Key findings of the 2004 National Chestnut Market Research were as follows:
- Chestnut cultivation can be a source of profit due to high demand, good prices, better quality domestic production compared to imports and relatively low initial investment requirements.
- Producing chestnuts can be a way to diversify an existing agricultural/orchard business.
- Chestnuts can be grown organically, have many nutritional and health benefits (e.g., gluten free flour) and are associated with positive feelings such as tradition, holiday and family that can help promote the product.
- Demand for chestnuts currently exceeds supply, with Asian and European ethnic consumer markets being the largest current outlet.
In addition to the market survey, UMCA has surveyed attendees at the annual Missouri Chestnut Roast, held in October at the Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center (HARC) in New Franklin, Mo. The Roast is designed to increase consumer and landowner awareness for chestnuts, pecans, black walnuts and other value-added products produced through agroforestry practices. Survey results from 2004 Missouri Chestnut Roast indicate 87% of consumers have very little or no familiarity with cooking and preparing chestnuts. Consumers and retailers also need education in the storage and preparation of chestnuts. (Source: Gold, M.A., M.M. Cernusca and L.D. Godsey. 2004. Comparing consumer preferences for chestnuts with eastern black walnuts and pecans. HortTechnology 14(4): 583-589.)
The 3rd annual Missouri Chestnut Roast, scheduled for Oct. 29, 2005, will offer hundreds of visitors the opportunity to enjoy their first sample of sweet, Missouri-grown roasted chestnuts, along with a variety of products featuring locally-grown black walnuts and pecans, recipes and nutritional information to peak their interest in purchasing nut products. Last year, attendance approached 3,000 guests, with similar numbers expected for the 2005 event.
Highlights of the Missouri Chestnut Roast:
* Guided tours of 660-acre Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center featuring diverse agroforestry practices
* Free fresh-roasted chestnuts, and samples and displays of Missouri pecans and black walnuts
* Educational booths from Missouri value-added agriculture vendors and University agricultural and environmental research programs
* Showcase for Missouri's outstanding agricultural products, including wines; jams and jellies; pecan, walnut and chestnut products; locally-produced honey; cheeses and meats
* Children's Tent, farm display, family activities and live music
* Cooking demonstrations by local gourmet chefs featuring Missouri chestnuts
* Guided tours of the Hickman House, a historic 1819 Georgian cottage and one of the oldest brick homes still standing in the state
* Demonstrations of new research on profitable specialty products produced through agroforestry, including pine straw, woody florals and chestnuts
* Beautiful Missouri River Hills scenery and artist exhibits depicting the unique landscapes
For additional information about the Chestnut Roast, and UMCA's research initiatives for chestnuts and agroforestry practices, visit www.centerforagroforestry.org.
The Center for Agroforestry collaborates with the Chestnut Growers of America (CGA) to research and promote the production of premium-quality chestnuts and their emergence into marketplaces across the U.S. The Center produces the CGA quarterly newsletter, The Western Chestnut, and the current issue can be viewed online at www.centerforagroforestry.org. For information about joining CGA, visit www.wcga.net/.
Chestnuts are low in calories, high in vitamin C and a good source of fiber. They are also cholesterol free and taste great roasted or baked in recipes. For additional nutritional information and recipes for chestnuts, pecans and black walnuts, visit www.centerforagroforestry.org and select Nutrition and Your Health.
By Rachel McCoy, Senior Information Specialist
University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry