Couple grows chestnut orchard in retirement years

By Patty Mamula

For the Capital Press

Chestnuts make a good niche crop for retirees.

In 1988 as Ben Bole was getting ready to retire from large equipment sales, he and his wife Sandy decided to buy 60 acres in Sherwood and start a farm, drawing on their early experience with a hobby farm in Ohio.

“We looked at potential crops for this site,” Ben said. The hazelnut blight was running rampant here and an OSU extension agent encouraged them to try chestnuts. “He felt this climate was ideal for them.”

They planted 15 acres to chestnut trees in 1992. The niche crop has done well on their sunny site with its Willa Kenzie soil. Unlike hazelnuts, chestnuts on the West Coast have been safe from blight and other pests.

The Boles harvested a few chestnuts the third year, but the fourth was when they had a large enough crop to sell. Since then, the crop has increased steadily. The 2013 harvest yielded 18,000 pounds of chestnuts.

Ladd Hill Orchards is, as far as they know, one of three certified organic chestnut orchards in the country.

“For us it’s worth the time and money it takes to get certified,” said Sandy. “We attract many customers because we’re organic.”

“I didn’t know how to sell that first harvest,” said Ben. “I just started contacting local grocery stores.”

Retailers, he said, had two common responses — “What are these, or we usually buy ours from Italy.”

“Still we sold most of them, he said. “The big ones are easy to sell fresh.”

The chestnuts are first brought into their packing barn and sorted into four sizes — jumbo, large, medium and small. The medium and smalls are shelled with a machine Ben designed and built, then they are moved on a conveyor into their state inspected and certified kitchen, where they are dried and packaged.

Sandy discovered dried chestnuts on a trip to Italy. Cooks reconstitute them like dried beans and often use them in soups, stews and sautés.

They added a couple other packaged products, including chestnut flour, a scone mix and a mix of wild rice and dried chestnuts.

The initial experiment with making flour ruined a food processor. Now they use a hammermill grinder and the chestnuts are ground twice, once to break them into pieces and the second time to reduce them to flour.

They sell the chestnuts online and at area grocery stores like New Seasons, Thriftway and Food Front.

“We sell the fresh ones for $6 to $7 a pound plus shipping, and we send to 30 states and Canada by the U.S. Postal Service,” Ben said.

Some of their most loyal customers are retailers from New England who place large orders every year.

“They sell them like crazy during the holidays,” Ben said.

The chestnut harvest begins around the first of October and continues for about six weeks or so, coinciding with the holidays when they are traditionally eaten.

Chestnuts have a water content of about 49 percent and a leathery, shiny brown hull. When they drop off the tree, they need to be harvested within a few days to avoid spoilage.

“When our chestnuts start to drop,” Ben said, “harvest is very concentrated until the rains start.”

By contrast, hazelnuts are usually harvested all at once because they have a hard shell and a low water content.

After harvest, the chestnuts are stored in a cooler at 28 degrees. Because of their sugar content, they don’t freeze. “We can keep them longer in a cooler than people can in their refrigerators,” said Ben.

But every year, they sell out of the fresh chestnuts around Christmas time. This year they lasted until the first of January.

Ladd Hill Orchards

Owners: Ben and Sandy Bole

Products: Fresh and dried organic chestnuts, chestnut flour and scone mix

Orchard: 15 acres of chestnut trees, planted in 1992, on a 60-acre plot in Sherwood, Ore.

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