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Rural Missouri Magazine

The Un-Nut
University ag researchers eye a nationwide
chestnut market just waiting to be cracked

by Bob McEowen
Ken Hunt, a research scientist at the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry, walks among rows of chestnut trees at the research station near New Franklin. The center is working to develop Asian chestnuts as an alternative crop for Missouri’s small farms.

Every year, Americans lift their voices in song and reminisce about “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” Ironically, while everybody knows that turkey and some mistletoe help to make the Christmas season bright, few Americans have actually tasted chestnuts, a starchy nut that all but disappeared from our shores as a blight decimated native chestnut trees at the dawn of the 20th century.

Unless you’re a recent immigrant or grew up in an Eastern city where street vendors roast imported chestnuts, it’s likely your sentimental view of chestnuts comes mostly from “The Christmas Song.” Nat King Cole may have secured the chestnut’s place in America’s heart but researchers and marketing experts at the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry want to make a place for it on our dinner table.

Over the past five years, on-campus staff of the Center for Agroforestry has worked with field staff at the university’s Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center in New Franklin to raise more than 50 types of Asian chestnut trees in an effort to form recommendations for commercial growers. Meanwhile, they’ve begun raising awareness of the nut by hosting an annual Chestnut Roast, introducing the nut’s flavor to chefs (see recipes) and taking chestnuts to farmer’s markets.

“The chestnut could be a $15 million a year industry in 20 years here. It could be huge,” says Michael Gold, associate director of the Center for Agroforestry, located on the Univer-sity of Missouri’s Columbia campus.

Chestnuts grow in small pods inside a spiny burr.

Although fresh chestnuts are most often eaten whole as a yuletide treat, Gold would like to see Americans incorporate the nut into their daily diets. “There is no end of ways that you can cook with them,” Gold says.

Chopped chestnuts can garnish fish or salads and add new flavor to stuffings for fowl. Chestnuts can be cooked like potatoes and carrots in soup or ground to flour for baking. There are even dessert recipes that call for pureed or glazed chestnuts.

Craig Cyr, executive chef and co-owner of The Wine Cellar and Bistro in downtown Columbia, has demonstrated chestnut cooking at the Agroforestry Center’s annual Chestnut Roast and has begun offering chestnut dishes to his customers. His latest creation is a ravioli, stuffed with chestnuts, apples and cheese.

“It’s a nice medium for a filling for ravioli because it’s so starchy,” Cyr says. “When you puree it, it gets really nice and smooth. It holds its shape very well and you can mix a lot of different things into it.”

A large nut with a thin shell, the chestnut is often confused with the buckeye. The similarity ends with appearance, though. A sure way to tell them apart is that chestnuts grow inside a spiny burr. “Does it look like a porcupine?” Gold asks. “Then you have a chestnut.”

Unlike pecans or walnuts, chestnuts are low in fat and high in moisture. “We call it the un-nut,” Gold says. “It’s really like a grain that grows on a tree.”

Michael Gold, left, associate director of the MU Center for Agroforestry discusses chestnut production at the test orchard of the Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center in New Franklin, while Ken Hunt surveys one of the trees he manages.

Ken Hunt, the research scientist responsible for the Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center’s chestnut orchard struggles to describe the flavor. “It’s a little like a sweet potato. It’s starchy but it’s sweet,” he says. “It has a sweet, delicate, earthy flavor.”

Chestnut trees grow well in the hills above the Missouri river — the same soil where apple and peach crops thrive. Chestnuts are being touted as a supplemental crop for fruit growers because the trees are so similar. Other potential chestnut growers include tobacco farmers, faced with the loss of price supports, and vintners.

“When you think about the possibility of mixing vineyards and chestnut orchards, the ambiance that we could create for Missouri is really exciting,” says Rachel McCoy, senior information specialist for the Columbia-based agroforestry center.

While the state’s agroforestry experts say they are absolutely “nutty” about chestnuts, they insist their expectations for the market are realistic.

“We’re trying to do this based on our research and not based on what we wish would be,” Gold says.

Chestnuts need to be cooked to be enjoyed. The traditional methode involves roasting whole chestnuts over a fire or outdoor grill.

Each year, the United States imports about 5 million pounds of chestnuts and produces less than 2 million pounds domestically. Producers can’t keep up with demand, says Gold, whose staff edits the newsletter of the Western Chestnut Grower’s Association and keeps close tabs on the market.

If Americans only know chestnuts from Christmas carols, who’s buying all these nuts?
Demand is strong among ethnic groups, particularly Asians and southern Europeans, agroforestry experts say. “There is a population out there already that are familiar with chestnuts and will gobble them up,” Hunt says. “They’d love to buy some and have trouble finding them.”

Between immigrants and Americans seeking new and different flavors, the chestnut has a strong future. And Missouri may be in a unique position to capitalize on it, Gold says.
Much of the state’s advantage comes from the work done at the New Franklin research farm, which is served by Howard Electric Cooperative. Originally Missouri’s horticulture field station, the center was expanded to include agroforestry in 1998.

Hunt drives a mechanical harvest beneath a grove of chestnut trees. Until recently all the trees at the center were harvested by hand. Harvest simply involves picking fallen burrs off the ground.

The station’s projects are diverse and include alley cropping, in which traditional crops grow among rows of trees; forest farming of ginseng, shiitake mushrooms and other crops; silvopasture, which combines trees, forest and livestock; and the study of windbreaks to control soil erosion and forest buffers to protect water quality. As a U.S. National Arboretum plant research site, the center evaluates ornamental trees and shrubs to determine cold hardiness and resistance to disease and insects. A flood tolerance laboratory includes a dozen 600-foot-long channels where researchers study the impact of standing or flowing water on trees, grasses and soybeans.

Several of the center’s projects hold promise for small farmers. Needles from pine trees may prove to be a profitable source of mulch and orchard-grown black walnuts may offer an alternative to traditional wild harvests. Few projects have generated the enthusiasm that the center shows for chestnuts, however.

“We’re excited. It’s something that this state is out ahead on and it’s going to have a good ride, I think,” Gold says. “It’s nice to do something hardly anyone else is doing when you know you’re onto something viable.”

For more information, write the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry, 203 Anheuser-Busch Natural Resources Building, Columbia, MO 65211; phone (573) 884-2874; or log onto www.centerforagroforestry.org.

Rural Missouri magazine - April 2014 issue
 
 
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