Get Growing: Bringing chestnuts back

  • The American chestnut was a common tree in North America until the mid-1800s, when a fungal blight arrived on our shores. BRUCE MARLIN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

  • Andrew Kilduff Photo

  • David Henion and Barbara Kline of Henion’s Bakery in Amherst made several delectable cakes and other chestnut creations. Andrew Kilduff Photo

  • chestnut creations that David Henion and Barbara brought to the chestnut brunch Andrew Killduff Photo

For the Gazette 
Published: 6/13/2019 4:44:15 PM
Modified: 6/13/2019 4:44:03 PM

Many people’s notions of chestnuts are limited to those roasting on an open fire, served at the holidays or in crinkly paper bags on the streets of New York City, warm and smoky-sweet tasting. On a recent Sunday morning at the home of Charles and Ray Mann in Amherst, 60 or so people gathered to hear about an exciting new project that aims to bring chestnut cultivation to western Massachusetts and beyond. The occasion also featured many delicious dishes that showcased chestnuts, including soup, quiche, crepes and even cheeses aged in chestnut leaves. David Henion and Barbara Kline of Henion’s Bakery in Amherst came bearing several delectable cakes and other pastries.

One of the major forces behind the project is Russell Wallack, a designer at Terra Genesis International, a design firm and consultancy that promotes sound ecological practices in land use and management. Wallack has been with TGI for four years, since graduating with a master's degree in ecological design from the Conway School in Northampton, which teaches sustainable landscape planning and design. Wallack explained that chestnuts have been cultivated for at least 5,000 years, beginning in Anatolia, what is now Turkey. The American chestnut (castanea dentata) was a common tree in North America until the mid-1800s, when a fungal blight arrived on our shores, wiping out most American chestnut trees over the next 70 years. At their peak, American chestnuts constituted nearly one-quarter of the hardwood trees in the Appalachian Mountains. Historically, chestnuts have played an important role in the diet of Native Americans.

Chestnut trees are sometimes called “bread trees,” because chestnuts are a nutrient-dense starch, similar in nutritional composition to whole grains. They are low in calories and fat. “They’re like a potato that grows on a tree,” said Wallack. He noted that two-thirds of the world’s croplands are used to grow carbohydrate-rich foods such as wheat and rice.

According to Wallack, chestnut cultivation offers benefits on many fronts. In addition to providing a valuable food source, chestnut cultivation is helpful to the environment and can promote local economic growth. His project promotes the planting of Chinese chestnut trees (castanea mollissima), which are not as susceptible to the blight that wiped out their American counterparts. (A parallel endeavor is the American Chestnut Project at Syracuse University that is working to create a blight-resistant strain of American chestnuts.)

Chinese chestnuts are an ideal agricultural crop, said Wallack. The trees are considerably smaller than American chestnuts, reaching around 40 feet in height, approximately half the size of American chestnuts. Some commercial growers limit the height to around 15 feet by strategic pruning and selecting dwarf cultivars. The trees thrive in temperate zones in dry, upland terrain. Because chestnuts don’t need a lot of water, they don’t require irrigation. They don’t bloom until late June or early July, so they aren’t subject to killing frosts that can wipe out other tree crops. And they’re an important source of nourishment for bees because they produce nectar when other plants aren’t producing it. Chestnut honey is prized around the world for its rich, pungent flavor.

Although chestnuts are commonly eaten in other parts of the world, including Eastern Europe, Asia and the Mediterranean, they are a novelty product in the U.S. “Chestnuts should not be seen as strictly a niche crop,” said Wallack. “They can play a large role in our diet.” He hopes to create a demand for chestnut food products in this country, including fresh chestnuts and dried nuts for cooking, similar to dried beans. He sees a growing market for chestnut flour, which has a slightly sweet, nutty flavor and is gluten-free. The flour can be used for baking and in soups and cereals. Producers of chestnut flour now rely mainly on chestnuts imported from France for their products. According to Wallack, there are preliminary plans to create a chestnut-based pancake mix to be marketed at Costco.

Chestnuts can thrive from Maine to Georgia as far west as the Mississippi River. The upland areas of the Appalachian Mountains provide ideal growing conditions. But despite their suitability to a wide geographical range, there are only 4,000 acres of chestnut trees in commercial production nationwide. Wallack and his team hope to change that. 1.7 million acres in the Commonwealth are likely areas for chestnut cultivation. And in the Connecticut River Watershed, approximately 104,000 acres are suitable.

Wallack and his colleagues believe chestnut trees can easily be integrated into existing farming operations. In 2018, Jono Neiger of Regenerative Design Group in Greenfield leased farmland in Sunderland to create the Big River Chestnuts project, an integrated chestnut agroforestry system. Agroforestry is a method of combining perennial crops to get multiple benefits and yields. At the meeting, he explained that he has planted seven acres of blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts and Chinese hybrids, varieties are that are relatively quick-growing and will produce nuts in three to five years. He plans to graze livestock on the acreage and also to plant small fruit as an “alley crop.” Because of its riverside location, the project will also serve as a riparian buffer, reducing erosion and runoff.

Big River Chestnuts is part of a broader effort to develop a chestnut industry in the northeast, by demonstrating to farmers and landowners “best practices around establishment, care, and harvest,” said Neiger. “It’s an example people can see.”

Several local farmers who were present at the event have embarked on chestnut cultivation. Two years ago Johnathan Carr and Nicole Blum, owners of Carr’s Orchards in North Hadley, planted 100 trees on two acres. “I like the notion of growing calories,” said Blum. “I eat a chestnut and I feel I’ve really eaten something.”

Jeremy Barker-Plotkin, co-owner of Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, is planning to cultivate chestnuts. He observed that operating an organic farm based on annual rather than perennial crops brings with it the environmental stresses of a “heavily managed eco-system.” Perennial crops such as chestnuts reduce the need for tillage, which leads to topsoil erosion and also decreases carbon sequestration in the soil. (Carbon sequestration is a process that takes CO2 out of the atmosphere, thereby reducing climate change.)

Cathy Schoen, a member of Amherst’s Town Council, expressed interest in the project from a land-use point of view. She suggested that property owners who need to keep their land in agricultural production for tax purposes might make their acreage available to chestnut tree growers. This arrangement would be similar to landowners allowing farmers to make hay on protected agricultural land.

Wallack and his colleagues emphasized that planting trees of any kind is a long-term commitment. It can take as long as 8 to 10 years for a chestnut tree to produce. He believes that’s a good thing. “We want people to make choices that will be beneficial in 150 years,” he said. “You’re in it for the long haul.”

Note: For more information on regenerative farming in the Valley with chestnut trees and other techniques, see today’s Hampshire Life.

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the Get Growing column since 2016.

Upcoming garden events  Simple Gifts Farmstrawberry festival

 

In case you missed the news, it’s strawberry season! Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst is holding its first annual Strawberry Festival this Sat. June 15 from noon to 6 p.m. This family-friendly event will include live music, pick-your-own organic strawberries, lots of kids’ activities including hayrides and balloon animal art. There will be delicious Simple Gifts farm food, a pig roast and organic strawberry cocktails. This is a great opportunity to check out this amazing farm and find out about its seasonal farm shares. 1089 N. Pleasant St. Admission is free; parking is $5.

City spaces country places garden tour

This self-guided garden tour, organized by Tower Hill Botanic Garden, will take place June 23 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. includes four private gardens of distinction in Grafton, Shrewsbury and Northborough. The gardens vary in age and setting. From the detailed descriptions on the Tower Hills website, they all sound well worth the visit.

One includes extensive established gardens designed by award-winning landscape designer Warren Leach. Another contains a variety of rare and unusual plants from the owner’s former nursery in upstate New York and is designed for aging in place. Advance Sales: Member: $20/Non-Member: $25. Day of: $30 Member; $35 Non-Member: $40. Tickets purchased after 12 p.m. on June 13 must be picked up at Tower Hill. For more information, go to: towerhillbg.org.

New England RoseSociety show and sale

 

While you’re out enjoying the City Spaces Country Places garden tour, stop by Tower Hill to see this spectacular rose show and sale. This show is presented by the New England Rose Society and will feature cut rose blooms from society members. Though Tower Hill has some rose plants in the Winter Garden, it does not have a formal rose garden. The Rose Show features stunning floral entries from the New England Rose Society in an indoor exhibit. The show takes place from 12:30 to 4 p.m. The sale is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free with garden admission.

Battle of the botanicals

The Hitchcock Center in Amherst is hosting its 4th annual Battle of the Botanicals on June 20, 6 to 10 p.m. at the Powerhouse at Amherst College. The fundraiser boasts an outstanding line-up of teams of local chefs and mixologists creating botanically inspired appetizers and cocktails. All are welcome to help raise vital funds for environmental education and enjoy creative from talented local chefs and mixologists. Participants are invited to sample the offerings at all restaurant stations, vote for their favorites, and see who makes it to the stage to compete for the crown. Enter to win raffle prize packages including outdoor adventures, Red Sox tickets, local food and drink, romantic getaways, and more. Once the winner is crowned, there will be an after-party with DJ Just Joan and authentic Mexican street food from Santo Taco on the outdoor patio. To purchase tickets and for more information, go to hitchcockcenter.org

 

Kestrel Land Trust3d annualcommunity picnic

 

On June 23, from 5 to 8 p.m., Kestrel Land Trust is having a picnic to show its appreciation for members, volunteers and friends. The event will take place at Rick and Mary Thayer’s historic homestead nestled at the base of the Mount Holyoke Range, looking out onto picturesque preserved farmland spectacular views of Mount Tom. Members, volunteers and anyone interested in learning more about Kestrel are invited to attend. This year, the event will be a potluck with beverages provided, including wine and beer. The event is free, but registration is required and guests should plan to bring a dish to share. (One dish per couple or family is fine.) The party will be casual, so bring your picnic blanket or lawn chairs if the weather is dry. There will be limited table seating for those unable to sit on lawn chairs or on the ground. If the weather is wet, table seating will be provided inside the historic barn.

During the picnic, you’ll have a chance to learn about the history of the Thayer farm and the Hockanum neighborhood, which includes Barstow’s Dairy. The evening will also include a tribute to our generous donors and dedicated volunteers. There will be a drawing for the grand prize of our Spring Membership Drive, as well as several other prizes for attendees of the picnic. Prizes include a 2-night stay at The Old Mill Inn in Hatfield and a $50 gift certificate to Bay State Perennial Farm. Space is limited and registration is required by Friday, June 21. For more information and to register, go to kestreltrust.org

 




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