Strong demand spurs increased interest in chestnuts
Updated: Friday, November 26, 2010 11:20 AM
Grower: 'learning curve is fairly long and fairly steep'
By JOHN SCHMITZ
For the Capital Press
There's room for growth in the chestnut industry, experts say, but the lack of West Coast nurseries is a problem for Northwest growers.
"You can't ship (planting stock) in from east of the Rockies," Ridgefield, Wash., grower Ray Young said.
The good news is that an orchardist in Gaston, Ore., is seriously looking at propagating Asian-U.S. hybrid stock, Young said.
Many chestnut growers in the U.S. have no problem selling their entire crops year after year, either fresh or processed.
"We've been having trouble keeping up with the demand, actually," said McMinnville, Ore., grower Randy Coleman, who, at 20 acres, is one of the Northwest's largest growers and sold 80,000 pounds of chestnuts, mostly fresh market, in 2009.
"But it's feast or famine," said Coleman, who also grows hazelnuts. "You have a big crop and almost struggle to get rid of them, and the next year you have a small crop and you definitely don't have enough."
"I've sold every nut I ever raised," said Moses Lake, Wash., grower Lee Williams.
Some of the related products, like chestnut honey offered by Sherwood, Ore., certified organic grower-processor Ben Bole, are rare.
"There are more people getting interested in growing chestnuts, but I would have to say the learning curve is fairly long and fairly steep," Bole said. "There have not been producers coming on with significant volumes."
According to a 2009 study done by the University of Missouri, commercial chestnut production is "still in its infancy" in the U.S, with the majority of the small producers in business less than 10 years.
"...(C)hestnut cultivation in the U.S. can be an attractive enterprise due to high product demand, favorable prices, and relatively low initial investment to establish plantations," the report stated.
With more attention being focused on celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, two markets that appear to be expanding for chestnut growers are the makers of wheat- and barley-free craft beers and gluten-free bakers.
Marketing via the Internet was the focus of the industry's summer meeting in Wilsonville, Ore., with Laura Barton from the Food Innovation Center in Portland and Katie Burnett of Watershed media in Portland advising growers how best to reach consumers.
According to promotional materials, chestnuts, which are called the "unNut" and "the grain that grows on trees," contain very little fat and more vitamin C than other nuts.
Chestnut growers receive anywhere from $4 a pound for smaller, field run, fresh nuts to over $12 a pound for processed nuts.
For more information on chestnuts, go to chestnutgrowers.com
Bounded by a nutshell?
McMinnville, Ore., chestnut grower Randy Coleman, who also grows hazelnuts, said the two crops are somewhat similar.
It takes five to seven years before both yield an ample quantity of nuts to harvest, and both crops are ready for harvest at about the same time.
When that happens, "If it's wet outside I harvest the hazelnuts first (to cut down the chances for mold in that crop), and if it's dry, the chestnuts first." Chestnuts are prone to dry out if not refrigerated properly after harvest.
Coleman is able to use the same harvesting equipment in both crops, he said.
In 2009 Coleman's 20 acres of chestnuts yielded around 80,000 pounds of nuts, most of which were sold on the fresh market.
While chestnut growers don't have to worry about Eastern filbert blight, they often do battle with the shot hole borer, which can kill trees. Chestnuts are also a more perishable crop.
Unlike hazelnuts, chestnut growers have no handler-processors to buy their products.
"You have to find your own buyers," said Ridgefield, Wash., grower Ray Young. "We don't have the problem hazelnut growers have, and that's someone setting the price for you."
Having run out of land to plant on, Coleman said that it's a toss-up as to which crop, hazelnuts or chestnuts, he'd plant if he had more room and nursery stock was available. "Depends on what day you ask me."
-- John Schmitz