Making chestnuts profitable for Michigan farmers

An interdisciplinary research team led by Michigan State University AgBioResearch scientist Dennis Fulbright has been working to make chestnuts a profitable crop in Michigan, not only for the holiday season but for the entire year.

Thanks to Fulbright's work, Michigan chestnuts are a rising crop.

Chestnuts “roasting on an open fire,” as the quintessential holiday song says, are a December tradition. An interdisciplinary research team led by Michigan State University (MSU) AgBioResearch scientist Dennis Fulbright has been working to make chestnuts a profitable crop in Michigan, not only for the holiday season but for the entire year.

“In about 1904, a fungus called chestnut blight came to the United States from Asia, and it devastated the No. 1 variety of American chestnut tree, the Appalachian chestnut tree,” said Fulbright, a professor in the MSU Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences. “These trees were often called the food and shelter trees of the Appalachian Mountains because they were decay-resistant and each tree supplied a crop of chestnuts. In about 50 years, this fungus basically eliminated the American chestnut from the Appalachian forest.”

It was soon discovered that the Chinese chestnut tree was resistant to the blight. While farmers in the United States began planting the Chinese variety, Fulbright remained focused on the American chestnut trees.

 “In Michigan – and only in Michigan – we have a biological control of chestnut blight,” Fulbright explained. “There was a virus that moved into the fungus that causes the chestnut blight, and this reduced its aggressiveness so that the trees survived and grew back. These Michigan trees are the only ones in all of North America that were able to survive the blight and grow back.”

Today, Michigan has the most acres of any state devoted to chestnut production and the largest number of chestnut-growing farmers, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture data. MSU Extension agents and researchers have worked with farmers for more than 20 years on how best to grow chestnuts in Michigan.

Chestnuts are the fifth most popular nut in the world but are mainly imported into the United States. Fulbright points out that the chestnut is really a fruit that could be considered a grain because of its complex carbohydrates. Once the shell is removed, the nut can be frozen and used year round. The nuts also can be made into flour that is gluten-free. Through a partnership with the Midwest Nut Producers Council, MSU has a chestnut-peeling system set up at the MSU Rogers Reserve for Nut Tree Research in Jackson County, Mich., to demonstrate how to prepare chestnuts for various kinds of products.

Fulbright said new pests, especially those from other states, are his biggest worry for the Michigan chestnut industry.

The Asian gall wasp is a big concern,” he said. “It was first found in Georgia but has moved north.”

The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development also is monitoring this pest and trying to prevent it from coming to Michigan. Chestnut trees to be planted in Michigan have to come from within the state or from other designated states so they don’t bring in pests.

In 2011, Michigan chestnut growers harvested approximately 100,000 pounds of chestnuts, nearly double the 2010 crop, according to figures on nuts received through the industry cooperative and estimates from producers. That’s because 2011 was an excellent growing season and because yield increases as the trees mature. The 2012 crop was affected by the spring frosts, but a larger crop than was first expected was brought to the cooperative for marketing.

“Few of the trees in the northern areas of Michigan were affected by the spring frosts, and many of the chestnut trees in the southern portions of the state recovered from the frost, set new flowers and produced nuts,” Fulbright explained.

This was the first time that growers and researchers had observed the trees setting new flowers on their lateral branches, but this happened only on the trees that MSU researchers had advised the growers to plant – trees of the cultivar ‘Colossal.’

“This is really a good example of planting the right cultivars in the right locations,” Fulbright said. “While some growers lost significant yields to the frost, other growers broke their all-time yield records in 2012. That was primarily due to their proximity to Lake Michigan.” 

In addition to support from MSU AgBioResearch, the chestnut project has received funding from Project GREEEN (Generating Research and Extension to meet Economic and Environmental Needs), the state’s plant agriculture initiative at MSU; and from the Ernie and Mabel Rogers Endowed Research Fund, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Ag Marketing Service grants, the USDA/Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, and a state of Michigan Julian-Stiles value-added grant.

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