Chestnuts: A foundation for food security and cultural shift.

chestnuts

If you’ve only ever experienced chestnuts in the well known Christmas Carol, you’re missing out.  This incredible tree has been an important staple around the world for thousands of years. It could easily become the next wheat or corn for the United States, and create an agricultural system that spans generations.  It is a perfect specimen to build permaculture food forests around to establish greater security in the face of climate change.

Trust me, you’re going to fall in love with this nut.

History

The fossil record of this most amazing tree goes back to around 85 to 60 million years ago.  Evidence has been found throughout North America, and Eurasia, even in seemingly deciduous tree unfriendly places like Greenland.  These findings suggest that Castanea species were once more widely distributed than today.  The most influential factor in their distribution was likely the procession and recession of glaciers.

Moving forward in time, as Homo sapiens leave Africa and move into temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere chestnut forests are a nutritional cash crop that was most likely an important part of these early explorers’ diets. 

Chestnuts in Asia

Concrete evidence of the importance of this food stuff shows up in village remains in China that carbon date to 9,000 years ago. While it was certainly used as a food stuff, the Chinese must have also placed great cultural and spiritual value on chestnuts.

Chestnuts have been found in tombs from many different dynasties, and a common practice, both historically and presently, is to plant chestnut trees near temples and shrines.  It also seems that chestnuts were presented to nobility as a sort of food tax.

It’s thought that chestnuts may have been the first nut readily used in Chinese cuisine.  As such, techniques for preparing chestnuts have evolved into a wide array.  Everything from main courses to dumping skins, soups, pastas, and dessert items.

Because chestnuts are up to 50% water when fresh they go bad quickly, many ways to preserve them developed.  These include sun-drying, boiling, preserving in sugar syrup, and salt/vinegar pickling to mention a few.

The popularity of chestnuts in Asian cuisine and culture extended into other regions such as Japan and Korea, with alterations in growing and preparation techniques.

Chestnuts in Europe

Around 4,000 years ago we see the Greeks growing chestnuts, and later the Romans.

The Romans saw the great value of chestnuts and made them part of their military/colonization campaigns.  They would plant chestnut trees and grapevines at their new outposts and settlements to provide a safe supply of food in each new area. 

After the fall of the Roman empire, chestnuts remained an important food source for many people throughout Europe.  During the middle ages, chestnuts represented precious calories in times of poor harvests, famine, and war.  This was especially true during the winter months just after the chestnut harvest.

Although important, chestnuts don’t seem to have permeated through as many areas of Western cuisine as in the East.  Those areas where they are used, however, exploit the carbohydrate rich nature of the nut extensively.  This is primarily seen in fresh chestnutspastas and baked goods.  Each region developed their own slightly unique recipes for various savory and sweet breads, biscuits, cakes, and puddings.

The legacy left by the Romans continues into modern times.  Every country in Europe with a climate suitable to chestnut propagation has a thriving chestnut economy.  Spain, Portugal, France, and Turkey have robust chestnut exports, while other European countries have a healthy local chestnut economy.

chestnuts

Chestnuts in North America

The North American portion of the Chestnut story is not so happy.  Prior to European colonization the region today known as Appalachia was a vast chestnut forest, with some areas being made up 100% with chestnut trees.

Chestnut trees are bountiful, and this bounty was relied upon by many wildlife including bear, dear, turkey, elk, squirrel, migrating birds, etc, as well as the many Native American tribes that made their homes in this region. 

The usefulness of the bounty continued as settlers replaced Native Americans.  Written documents from the early days of the USA describe places where the chestnuts would be piled waist high, around trees up to 12 feet in diameter.  Although this may seem like a fanciful and bloated claim, given the producing potential of a single tree, it is not so impossible.

The wood of the chestnut trees also contributed to the blossoming enterprises of early Americans.  Chestnut wood has one of the highest tannin contents of any known hardwood, which makes it extremely rot resistant.  This makes it excellent for fence posts, railway ties, shingles, siding, ships, and more.  The tannins can also be extracted and used in the tanning of leather.

Beyond just being a useful wood, chestnut grows faster than oak, another hardwood with similar properties. When a mature tree is felled the stump sends up new shoots that can be allowed to grow to the desired size, harvested, and regrown in a coppice system.

End of a Legacy

Then, in 1904, an imported Chinese chestnut tree was planted in New York City. Stowed away on this tree was an bark fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica) that American chestnut trees had no immunity to.  In 40 years, this fungus, referred to as blight, wiped out virtually the entire American chestnut population, some 30 million trees. Whole forests gone in a generation.

As the trees died, they were cut down for lumber.  The loss of this plentiful food source coincided with the Great Depression.  This is one aspect that isn’t often talked about in the history books.  Had the blight not destroyed such a critical nutrition/calorie source, the Great Depression would not have been so hard on people, especially those living in rural Appalachia that had developed a culture around the nut.

Thankfully, some blight resistant American chestnut trees were found, and hybridization work has been done to further protect against the damaging effects of the blight.  Chestnut orchards are making a slow come back in the United States, however there is a great distance to go before our chestnut industry can be compared to that of other countries. It is very likely the dramatic heavy loss of the American chestnuts that removed this incredible food from our cultures vernacular.  Many Americans only ever experience chestnuts in song.

Growth and Production

With proper setup and care, an orchard of chestnut trees can quickly become a profitable investment with returns for generations. Literally. Think hundreds of years.

While we will never know the true majesty of the pure America Chestnuts and their large delicious nuts, the many blight-resistant strains and hybrids can be used to establish a healthy planting.  One of the best strains is called the Dunstan chestnut, which you can find out more about here.

chestnuts in sacks

Planting Requirements

The basics of growing chestnuts is pretty simple.  Temperature-wise chestnuts grow in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 5-9.  You can check what zone you are in here.  Any further north than Zone 5 and they will not have enough frost-free days to produce a crop.  Any warmer than Zone 9 and they will not receive enough cold hours.  Of course in the face of climate change, these zones are likely to change in the coming years, so be aware of this unfortunate possibility.

Chestnut trees will grow in most kinds of soils as long as they are well drained, though a sandy loam is their preferred soil type.  Planting on a slope can help with drainage while also preventing cold spots where chill air in spring and fall could cause damaging frost areas.

As with most trees, you want to avoid stress early on, as this could reduce the lifetime production and growth of a given tree.  An ample water supply is the easiest way to avoid stress, as water is the most important component of a tree’s growth rate.

A good nitrogen supply is also important both for quick growth and early production.  One permaculture technique to handle this is to plant a Siberian pea shrub only a few feet away from each chestnut sapling.  Siberian pea shrub is in the legume family, and is a useful nitrogen fixer.  This sort of mixed planting mimics nature. Different kinds of plants provide each other with different resources.  The companion shrub won’t overshadow the chestnut tree, but will be a long term companion, providing a steady stream of nitrogen to fuel the chestnut’s growth.

Competition with weeds is to be avoided.  A great way to handle this is to graze livestock between the rows.  I’ll talk more in-depth about the crop-stacking capabilities, but cows, sheep, or geese could be used to keep down grasses and other weeds to cut down on the need to mow.

Nut Production

A single chestnut tree can grow to be quite large.  Individuals have been found with a height up over a hundred feet, and others with crowns wider than 40 feet.  For commercial production, a spacing of 30×30 feet is recommended.  The actual nut grows on the new outer growth of the tree, so the more overall area of the tree that is exposed to sunlight, the greater the yield.

Different varieties of chestnuts begin to yield at different times.  Some will begin production nuts as early as 4 years, while others will take 10.  5-7 years seems to be the average time until production.

On average a tree can produce between 10 – 20 pounds of nuts per year by 10 years, and by maturity(between 15 and 20 years) anywhere from 50 – 100 pounds per year.  These numbers will vary greatly from site to site, based on optimal growth conditions, but yields should consistently increase for an individual tree over time. 

At a planting space of 30×30 feet, that’s 54 trees per acre, which is a potential 2700 – 5400 pounds of chestnuts per acre per year.  I’ll get more into the potential economics of chestnuts later in this article.

Admittedly, you will be waiting a few years for your trees to begin producing.  If you want to increase your early yield, you can plant the trees, and then thin them out once they begin crowding each other.  This will produce an opportunity for a timber crop as well.

For more information on the specifics of caring for a chestnut orchard check out the Chestnut Hill Tree Farm website.

Culinary Aspects

It isn’t just the prolific nature of the chestnut that has made it so significant across time and space.  It boasts an impressive nutritional profile, and its physical properties make a flexible ingredient across many cooking techniques.

Unlike other tree nuts, chestnuts are very low in oil/fats, and high in starch/carbohydrates. The make up is typically 40-45% carbohydrate, 5-8% protein, and 2-3% fat.  The rest of the mass is made up of water.  The protein profile is similar to that of eggs and milk, being considered a “perfect protein source”.  Chestnuts exhibit levels of Potassium, Vitamin K, Vitamin C, B1, B2, and Niacin in levels similar to fresh fruits.  A single chestnut contains a a quarter of your daily dose of potassium.  Find a breakdown of the full nutrition profile here.

Even though it grows on a tree, its profile puts it on a playing field with cereal grains, minus the yearly tilling.

The simplest way to eat chestnuts the world over is fresh, during harvest season.  The nuts are dry fried, roasted, or boiled, which makes their meat tender, turning some of the starch into sugar.  Chestnuts are known for their distinctly sweet nuttiness. The high starch content makes the texture not unlike a potato, though denser as by weight chestnuts have twice as much starch as potatoes.

chesnuts

While the high water content makes chestnuts prone to spoilage, the high starch to low fat ratio makes them excellent for preserving and using later.  In Italy there is a tradition of slowly drying the new harvest of chestnuts over a fire of chestnut woods in a special hut in the woods.  The dried chestnuts are then ground using old fashion stone mills.  In China, they’ve historically been sun-dried and stored whole in sand, and ground as needed.

This chestnut flour can be used as a gluten-free alternative to wheat flours.  Both European and Asian cultures have developed numerous recipes that make use of chestnut flour alone or in combination with other flours.  In Asia you’ll find it in dumpling skins, bean paste, tofu, pastries, pastry fillings, steamed items, noodles, and in soup as a thickener.  In Europe, various types of sweet breads with dried fruits have been developed, as well as pastas, dense cakes, crepe-like pancakes, and biscuits/cookies.

Partially crushed and boiled, chestnuts become an easy replacement to oatmeal, cream of wheat, and grits.

Whole chestnuts can be boiled in sugar syrup and preserved in a candied state.  If you’ve ever had a wet walnut sundae you will have an idea of how delicious this would be.  On the more savory side of the kitchen, chestnuts can be pickled using salt and vinegar methods, as well as fermentation.

Being grain-like, chestnuts can even be used to brew beer, a welcome beverage for those gluten-free beer lovers.

No other nut can brag about such wide spread use and versatility.  As such, it could easily become a widespread carbohydrate in the American diet.

Multi-tiered Production Systems and Profitability

Let’s talk economics. As we established earlier, a healthy acre of chestnut trees can produce 2,700 – 5,400 pounds of chestnuts per year at maturity around 15 years, however they will begin producing sooner.  Wholesale prices for quality chestnuts run between $3 and $5 per pound, twice as much for organically grown chestnuts.  On the conservative side for a smaller yield that’s $8100/acre.  On the generous side for a bumper crop that’s $27,000/acre.  Yes, that’s quite a difference, but again, this is farming. It’s difficult to predict how any given orchard will do, in any given market. And, that amount will increase year to year as the trees continue growing.

In terms of investments, honestly, there is not sufficient data for this, simply because not enough people are growing this crop!  We can do some basic estimations.  Wholesale Dunstan chestnut seedlings run about $12.50 a piece.  For an acre of 54 trees, that’s $675. One time.  If you plant the trees closer for an earlier crop, with plans to thin out later you can get about 121 trees per acre at a cost of $1518.  Again, that’s a one time input.

chestnut growth projections

An acre of corn will set you back about $120.  But that is every single year, plus inflation.  In 2016, an acre of corn brought in about $762 in revenue.  And even though we don’t have sufficient data for the yearly input costs of a chestnut orchard, the profit margin will only increase with each successive crop.  True, if chestnuts became a more widespread commodity, the price would drop, but we have a long ways to go before that happens.

For most, the 10-15 year wait til profitability is a huge hurdle to jump over.  And quite understandably.  But this is where permaculture works its magic. 

Just as a brief explanation: Permaculture, or “permanent agriculture” seeks to mimic relationships in nature to establish production systems that are abundant and virtually self-sustaining.  This is accomplished with such tools as companion planting, micro-climate creation, perennial fruits and vegetables, and more. 

Think about a forest.  A forest doesn’t require any inputs.  It’s made up of plants, animals, fungi, and microbes that feed each other in endless nutrient cycle loops.  As such, we can create similar systems that are more abundant than conventional mono-cropping agriculture.

So while you are waiting for your chestnut trees to begin fruiting, you can create other revenue/resource streams around them.

For this example, let’s say we plant an acre with 121 chestnut trees, to start getting a sizable crop as soon as possible. 121 seedlings spaced 20 feet apart don’t take up very much space, which leaves a lot of space or grass and forage.  Why not add grazing animals?

Grazing Animals as Additional Income Stream

This is the beauty of permaculture, 1 variable can serve multiple purposes.  You take advantage of all the grass by introducing grazing animals, which will create another product, or multiple products(more on that in a moment).  The grazing action of the animals keeps the weeds and grasses at bay, which reduces the need for mowing, a big time and energy suck.  And, as the animals are eating, they’re also pooping, delivering fertilizer right where it is needed.  Which again, reduces an input. Say goodbye to artificial fertilizers.

Now you have another revenue stream.  Four great options are sheep, cows, goats, geese, or a mix of all 4.  I’m going to spend the most time on sheep, as I may or may not be partial.

icelandic sheep

Part of the reason I like sheep so much is because they are so multi-purpose.  I will rant more about this love affair in another post, but for now, know that sheep are small enough to be manageable, can produce meat, milk, wool, 2 of 3, or even all 3.  Case in point, Icelandic sheep produce all three.  On lush, good quality pasture you can raise about 10 ewes and their lambs through the grazing season.  If you want your sheep to produce the “natural way” then lets say 9 ewes and 1 ram ( a single ram can breed 35-40 ewes).

Icelandic sheep produce twins reliably, and triplets 15% of the time.  So you can estimate 18 lambs every spring. Icelandic lambs only take 4-5 months to reach a market weight of 80 to 110 pounds.  That will fetch about $250 to $300 per lamb, or $4,500 to $5,400 for your acre’s worth of lambs per year.

Waste not want not.  Don’t forget about the lambskins.  You can get about $30 per lambskin, or  $540 for your acre of lambs.

Where there are lambs, there is milk.  Lambs can be weaned at 2 weeks old.  An Icelandic ewe can produce about a liter of milk a day, with good milkers producing up to two or three.  Their lactation period can go as long as 90 days.  So per ewe that’s 90 liters or 23 gallons of milk.  That’s 207 gallons of sheep’s milk every summer. While market price varies you can sell sheep’s milk for $10 a quart, $20 in the raw milk niche market.  That’s a potential $8,280 – $16,560.

The last item from our Icelandic sheep is their wool.  At this time Icelandic sheep wool is considered a specialty item amongst hand spinners.  Icelandic sheep are sheared twice a year, but it is the autumn shearing that will fetch a premium price of $15 a pound. Each fleece can weight 4-7 pounds.  That comes out to a conservative $600 – $1,050 for raw fiber.

All told, your one acre of understory grazing could gross $13,920 to $23,550 per year while waiting for your chestnut trees to begin producing, and afterwards as long as you like.

Other Potentials

Sheep is only one option while you are waiting for your first bumper chestnut crop.  In addition to other kinds of animals, you could also grow a variety of plant crops.  There are numerous fruits and vegetables that can handle partial to full shade quite well. 

Most leafy greens can only need a few hours of sunlight a day.  Rhubarb, although not technically a fruit, is a delicious option for a perennial product that will produce for years to come.  There’s also items like acid cherries, blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries, and alpine strawberries.  The draw back here is that once your nut trees do begin producing, all the foliage and stems of these perennial fruit crops could make harvesting the chestnuts difficult, but not impossible with some creativity. 

Another potential product associated with your burgeoning chestnut forest is mushrooms.  High value mushrooms like truffles, chanterelles, and porcini have an affinity for chestnut trees.  Some intentional inoculation with these types of fungi could establish another profitable product for years to come.

As I said earlier, let’s pretend we planted an acre of chestnut trees close together.  Once they begin crowding into each other, you can remove half the trees, and sell the wood. Chestnut is highly prized for its beautiful grain, and extreme rot resistant properties.  And all those stumps will send up new shoots that can be coppiced yearly, or every few years, for a steady supply of fence posts, walking sticks, stakes, basket materials and more. 

And don’t think that any one of these avenues is your only option.   You can combine as many species as you can handle.  Because truly, at the end of the day, it isn’t about the money. It’s about creating a better future.

New Agriculture, emphasis on ‘Culture.’

The economic potentials for chestnut and multi-tiered orchards is certainly exciting and a valuable shift in our agricultural practices. But it’s about more than that.  This isn’t just about generating more money off the land.

It’s about creating habits and processes that can stand the test of time.  Current projections estimate that the world’s arable topsoil only has 60 more harvests left in it.  That’s 60 years of enough organic matter and nutrients to support crops.  That’s pretty scary.  But it is not the only path for us to walk down.

Chestnuts, and trees in general, create change in a way that few other organisms can.  They pull up nutrients from deep underground, which gets added to the top soil in the form of their decomposing leaves.  They sequester carbon throughout their entire life, locking it away for hundreds of years.  They provide food and habitat for other organisms and us humans. Heck, they can even effect the weather (aka trees in the rainforest drive rain showers).

And they create security.  Fluctuating temperatures and weather patterns are making crop yields increasingly unpredictable.  Food systems centered around trees and permaculture create multiple avenues through which to acquire resources, which is more stable than relying on any 1 crop to perform well every year.

You don’t need to start a chestnut farm, or even plant an entire acre of chestnuts.  Consider getting just a few trees (you need at least 2 within 200 feet of each other for pollination) Even just a few chestnut trees can create greater food security for you and your family, and many generations after you.

Do you have any experience with chestnut trees? Share in the comments below.

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Built by humans. Inspired by Nature.

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