The chestnut is a unique tree crop that will do well over much of the eastern USA, wherever sites are adequate. It seems to be especially appropriate for hilly or mountainous areas where highly erodible soils should be protected with tree crops. Chestnuts are a high-carbohydrate, grain-like food, with a healthy nutritional profile. There is a large, unsatisfied demand for the crop and prices are high. In many ways, chestnuts are easier to grow than most orchard crops, but they still involve considerable work and grower attention, especially at harvest time. There are challenges such as pests and perishability of the crop. It takes more than a decade to bring an orchard into full production, but the lifespan of an orchard will likely exceed the lifespan of the person who planted it. Chestnuts are not a get-rich-quick proposition, but they do allow land to provide long-term annual income. Chestnut trees increase the value of the land for future landowners.
How much land do I need and what will be the income per acre?
When in full production, chestnuts will yield 1,000 to 4,000 lb per acre. Depending on how they are marketed, prices range from $1.50 to $6.00 per lb. One to five acres is a manageable size that one or two people could care for by hand and net a few thousand dollars. Plantings larger than five acres will require more equipment or more labor than one or two people can provide, at least during harvest. To economically justify cleaning, sizing, and sorting equipment, as well as cold storage and marketing, it is necessary to have at least 50 acres in production, preferably more. Combining production from several or more growers in the form of a marketing cooperative is a viable way to achieve the necessary economies of scale.
What kind of chestnuts should I plant?
The chestnut species best suited for nut production in eastern USA is the Chinese chestnut, Castanea mollissima, in terms of climatic adaptation, nut quality, and marketability. It is sweet, easy-to-peel, and blight resistant. Either seedlings or grafted trees can be planted, and there is debate over which is better. (A seedling is a tree derived from planting a nut; seedlings are all genetically different from each other. A grafted tree is made by placing a bud from a known cultivar onto a seedling rootstock; grafting is a method of cloning.) Seedlings are more vigorous and more forgiving with respect to care and site. Grafted trees have more predictable characteristics, are slower growing, and bear at a younger age, but they exhibit a high rate of mortality, especially when stressed. Presently, seedling orchards derived from good parents have proven more successful than orchards of grafted trees mainly due to the high mortality and slower growth of grafted trees. Furthermore, seedlings from highly selected diverse parents often outperform grafted cultivars in terms of yield and nut quality. The seedlings that are available now are much better than those available a decade or two ago. Just be careful to plant the right ones. For the reasons just stated, we offer only seedling trees, not grafted trees. Be assured that we plant only the best genetic quality seeds available. Seedling orchards need to be planted densely to begin with and later thinned as trees grow and exhibit their production characteristics. This strategy allows removal of poorer performing trees so that their better performing neighbors can fill the space.
How should I protect trees from deer?
Deer present problems at all stages of tree growth. They browse young trees, bucks rub on slightly older trees, and then deer eat the nuts when they drop. The best protection is an 8-ft high woven wire fence around the orchard, but this is expensive. Young trees can be protected by putting a wire cage around each tree. Considering cost, labor, and efficacy, a good cage can be made by cutting a 4-ft long piece of 5 ft wide 2×4 welded wire. The piece easily forms a 16 in. diameter circle to be placed around the tree and held in place with a metal stake (an old tee-post works well). In 2-3 years, the trees will be above browse height, but the trunks still need protection from buck rubbing, so leave the cage there or use some other means to protect the trunk. Spraying trees with blood from your local butcher shop is an effective repellent for both browsing and buck rubbing, but it has to be applied 3 times per year. Chestnut trees tend to be branchy and the branches are somewhat of a deterrent to buck rubbing, so do not prune the trees and expose long, bare stems. Many people use plastic tree shelters, but we do not recommend them. Shelters stunt growth, cause spindly stems, and often attract and harbor voles which can kill the trees.
How far apart should chestnut trees be planted and when do they start to bear?
At maturity Chinese chestnuts will fully occupy the land at a spacing of 40 X 40 ft (or even wider), but it takes up to 20 years to reach full occupation at this spacing. If trees are planted too close, mutual shading causes a reduction in yield. However, trees should be planted close while young and then thinned as they grow; the absolute minimum spacing for such a planting is 15 X 20 ft. Trees should be planted on a rectangular grid to facilitate mowing and spraying. Harvest-worthy production should begin at age 5 or 6. Thinning of closely spaced trees is a several-year process that begins at age 8 to 10. Poorer performing trees are removed first. Ultimately, trees end up at a spacing that allows about 800 to 1600 sq ft per tree (25 to 50 trees per acre). Branches will grow to fill gaps in the planting even if spacing varies in different directions. Close initial spacing does provide more early production, which more than pays for the extra trees and their removal. An alternative to close spacing is moderately wide initial spacing such as 20 X 40 ft. This spacing creates permanent 40 ft aisles that allow easy mowing, spraying, and mechanical harvesting; and they admit enough light that trees within the rows (20 ft spacing) do not necessarily have to be removed to alleviate crowding. However, up to half of the trees can be removed, as a means to eliminate poorly performing trees while their better-performing neighbors take over their space. In summary, close spacing will result in higher early returns while wider spacing requires less work and decision-making during the early production years. Close spacing requires making decisions early in the life of the orchard regarding which are the best trees and it requires removal of good trees just as they are increasing their production. A closely-spaced orchard will reach full production in about 15 years while a widely-spaced orchard will require about 20 years. Chestnut trees live and remain productive for more than 50 years.
How are chestnut trees pruned?
Unlike most fruit trees, chestnuts don’t require a great deal of pruning. Young Chinese chestnut trees tend to be branchy and sprawling and it is tempting to try to shape them up into a straight, upright tree. However, the less they are pruned, the quicker they will come into production. After they begin production, lower branches and multiple stems should be gradually removed to allow mowing and harvesting. Most of the production is on the tips of vigorous shoots, so the tops of the trees are not pruned. Branches need to be in full sun in order to be productive. As trees fill their spaces in the orchard, large branches should be removed to let sunlight in.
How are chestnuts harvested?
Generally, chestnuts are allowed to naturally drop from the trees when they are ripe and then they are picked up, usually by hand. At the present time, good harvesting machines don’t exist that work on wet, sloping conditions. However, as more chestnut acres come into production, mechanical harvesting systems will be developed.
When are chestnuts harvested?
Chestnuts drop over several weeks in September and October and must be harvested within a few days after they drop because of their perishability. Since chestnuts are 50% water they need to be promptly harvested before they dry out. Under warm, dry conditions chestnuts should not lie on the ground for more than a day or two. On the other hand, if it’s cool and wet (rainy), there is no harm in letting the chestnuts lie in the orchard, except that they are subject to wildlife depredation. On a given tree, chestnuts will drop over a period of several days to a week or more. The marketing season is October and November.
How are chestnuts marketed?
Presently, most chestnuts are marketed fresh, in-shell, shortly after harvest up through the holidays. Most growers bag them and sell directly to consumers through a farm market or website. Some growers sell them as a pick-your-own crop. Larger growers wholesale their crop. Demand is high; buyers often seek out growers. After harvest but before sale, chestnuts need to be cleaned, optionally sized, graded (remove bad nuts), bagged, and stored under refrigeration. Postharvest handling, storage, and marketing involve significant costs.
Am I the right kind of person to be a chestnut grower?
Even though chestnuts have been cultivated for thousands of years in Europe and Asia, a large, commercial industry has not yet developed in the USA. Consequently, plant materials and cultural practices have not been established and researched. Economic, pricing and marketing information is elusive and variable. The industry is in a pioneering stage of development. Many fundamental questions remain unsettled. Conflicting and confusing information abounds. There is not much university support (but we appreciate that which does exist!). A chestnut grower needs to be someone who enjoys the pioneering aspect of the business and is comfortable with unknowns, surprises, and discovery. Chestnut growing is a long-term endeavor. Putting a chestnut orchard in the ground is a commitment of more than 25 years and, if successful, is a trans-generational operation. There is a need for substantial up-front investment and break-even is more than 10 years out. On the bright side, the past 30 years have seen substantial gains in all aspects of the industry. The industry is small, but growing rapidly, and some growers are making money. But most chestnut growers are not in it just for the money: chestnut trees are good for the land and chestnuts are good food for those who eat them.