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Chestnut Orchard Up And Running
Linda and Dale Black’s chestnut orchard is starting to produce saleable nuts. A 4,000-lb. yield in 2010 doubled in 2011 and is expected to double again in 2012 to 16,000 lbs. While yields are on the increase, so is demand for the Dunstan strain chestnuts. About half their production goes to a food store chain and half are sold over the internet.

    “We have about 1,000 trees producing,” says Linda Black. “The nuts were a little smaller with the drought we had last year, but we still sold out by Christmas.”

    What started with 100 seedlings planted on their Illinois farm in 2001 has grown to between 2,600 and 2,700 hybridized chestnut trees. Several hundred trees have been lost to deer, rabbits and other pests, even though a handmade wire cage protected each tire.

    Though the couple purchased their first set of seedlings, the bulk of the orchard was direct seeded or grown from seed in a greenhouse they set up on the farm. The first few years they replanted any tree that was destroyed, but have since realized they have plenty to work with.

    “We planted on 20-ft. centers, which may be too close for maximum nut production, but it’s our hope that our children or grandchildren may be able to harvest some trees for wood, leaving others for nut production,” says Linda.     

    Two homemade devices that remove the hulls or burs and sort the nuts by size were introduced this past season. Dale Black fashioned them after similar machines used by friends in the chestnut business.

    Nuts drop from a hopper down through two sets of lawn mower tires. The tires are under inflated so as not to damage the nuts. Opposing tires running at different speeds “rub” the hulls or burs off the nuts.

    After nuts are separated from the burs, they are fed into a sorter. Dale laminated plywood rings to make a frame for a cylinder. Three sheets of high-density polyethylene, each one drilled to make holes of a slightly larger size, were mounted inside the rings. The cylinder rides on wheels mounted on top of a framework fashioned out of shelving uprights.

    A hose mounted inside the cylinder spirals from one end to the other, helping to move the nuts along. As they pass over each succeeding section of the cylinder, nuts fall through into wooden containers, separating out into small, medium and large sizes.

    The nuts in each size group are poured into a food grade sterilizing solution. Here the good nuts sink, while those with air in the shells float. The nuts are then dried, packaged and put in cold storage.

    This past season, nuts were picked from the ground by hand and moved by hand from one machine to another. In the near future, the Blacks hope to mechanize handling with augers and conveyers. This winter they purchased a used nut harvester from California.

    Finding customers for their fresh chestnuts has been easier than finding equipment. Imported chestnuts can spend days or weeks in transit, exposing them to temperature extremes. As a result, imported nut quality varies.

    “We work extremely hard to get farm-fresh chestnuts to the market under proper conditions,” says Linda. “Within seven days of hitting the ground, our chestnuts have been deburred, sorted, cleaned, sanitized, packaged labeled and refrigerated before traveling to a refrigerated warehouse.”

    The Black’s chestnut orchard requires limited work now that the trees are established. Linda advises fertilizing with a light treatment of urea or 12/12/12. She cautions against over fertilizing, which can cause the trees to shoot up too fast.

    The American chestnut mostly died out due to blight. Crossing the few American survivors with Chinese chestnuts and recrossing with the American are bringing the trees back. The Dunstan was an early success.

    “The Dunstan is supposed to be 15/16 American chestnut, and most of our trees are the classic American tall, straight shape,” she says. “However, the Dunstan nuts are larger than the American chestnut was, sweeter and easier to peel.”

    Though the 2011 crop is sold out, pricing and pictures are available on the farm’s website.

    Contact: FARM SHOW Followup, Chestnut Ridge of Pike County, 18483 U.S. Hwy. 54, Rockport, Ill. 62370 (ph 217 437-4281; www.chestnutridgeofpikecounty.com).

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2012 - Volume #36, Issue #4