Chestnuts growing on an open field. Missouri farmers can make $6,000 an acre harvesting them
Americans eat more than 7.5 million pounds of chestnuts every year, most of them imported from Italy, China and Korea, even though the Midwest has perfect climate conditions to grow the nut.
An increasing number of people looking at small-scale farming and getting out of row crop production see chestnuts as the path to get there.
Bill Stouffer spent decades growing corn and soybeans on his farm near Tipton in central Missouri, but about 10 years ago he wanted to get out of that business. He was looking to find a way to make his farm smaller and still profitable so he could leave his children some of the land that had been in his family for more than 200 years.
“I don't want it to be a burden for them. So we were looking for a crop that would give high yield per acre, and let them make a choice if they wanted to manage it or hire management, but have the farm be able to support itself and continue in the family for years to come,” Stouffer said.
Stouffer planted 20 acres of chestnut trees in 2009. About three years later, they started to produce, and his family set up an online store.
Chestnuts grow in spikey burrs on the trees that open up in mid-September, dropping the nuts on the ground. That means the harvest has to happen quickly, and it’s a fast turnaround to get them to customers.
“Generally speaking they start dropping nuts on the 20th of September. So we opened up our website on the 22nd, and in four to five hours, we had more than 100 orders,” Stouffer said. “There is a tremendous demand for chestnuts.”
Stouffer’s family and a few hired high school students harvest the chestnuts using little wire cages on the end of a stick. Then they can clean, sort and package them in a couple of rooms of their barn. They go for about $6 a pound and sell out every year.
That level of demand is encouraging other people to explore chestnut farming.
“We do market surveys of the chestnut growers and we find that the prices are very high, demand is exceeding supply,” said Mike Gold, professor of forestry at the University of Missouri. “Everybody sells out within a couple of weeks. So, all the needles are pointing in the right direction.”
There are 2,500 acres of chestnut farms in the U.S., according to the Chestnut Growers of America, and it would take more than 10,000 acres just to make up for what’s imported every year.
Chestnuts as a commodity also benefit small farmers, because it’s not the kind of crop that can satisfy the demand through mass production.
“The preference for ‘buy local’ is powerful. So somebody would much prefer to buy a Missouri chestnut if they are from Missouri than say a California chestnut and very much more than a European or Asian one. Also our quality is better because they don’t lose any quality in shipping,” Gold said.
Even with chestnut demand outpacing supply, advocates are still trying to expose more people to the taste.
Part of that effort is the Missouri Chestnut Roast Festival at the University of Missouri research farm in New Franklin, where chestnuts are literally roasted over an open fire.
Hundreds of people came out to the festival earlier this month to taste chestnuts, get recipes and learn more about the nut.
Daniel Blake and Elizabeth De Meyer of Columbia were among those who tasted different breeds of chestnuts for market research. It was their first time eating the soft-textured nuts.
“It’s hard to compare them like anything else, really. I’ve never tasted anything like that,” Blake said.
De Meyer said: “They are sweet. The texture threw me off because I didn't know what to expect. But they’re good. I like them.”
Promoters hope people will like the taste so much they will eat them roasted or in recipes like chestnut dressing, hummus and even chili. Most chestnut farmers include special recipes with the nuts when they send out orders.
With the demand and potential, chestnut farming is appealing to people who are new to farming or want a smaller farm. It doesn’t require expensive equipment like combines and can be profitable on a lot less than the thousands of acres needed to make money on row crops like corn and soybeans.
Greg Heindselman, a chestnut farmer in Lewistown, said a chestnut farmer could make a living on as little as five to 10 acres.
“In a lean year, if you only have 1,000 pounds per acre, that figures right around $6,000 an acre. Now, granted, not all of that is profit. You have establishment costs and some maintenance as it goes along, but that’s still a whole lot better than I can do in grain,” Heindselman said.
While the future or chestnut growing in Missouri appears bright, it’s not all Christmas carols and tasty recipes.
“Growing chestnuts is hard work. It’s labor intensive, and you always have something to do, almost year round,” Heindselman said. “But it’s still worth it. It’s a great way to farm.”
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