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The Return of the American Chestnut at Virginia Chestnuts

By:
Virginia Chestnuts, Nelson County, American Chestnuts

“We’d like to see this area become for chestnuts what the Salinas Valley is for almonds,” says David Bryant of Virginia Chestnuts. “And we feel strongly we can make it happen.”

The route to David and Kim Bryant’s 45-acre chestnut farm meanders through the hilly backroads of Nelson County, terminating in a mile-long gravel drive that winds in alternating sequence through orchards and forests, orchards and forests. Climbing toward the modern cabin-style home and big metal barn, the views turn dazzling. On the horizon, a rising panorama of Blue Ridge Mountains. Mounting the Bryant’s porch, the dappled canopies of some 1,500 adolescent chestnut trees shimmering in the orchards below. It’s getting on toward sunset. The light shafts blunted through soft pink clouds, dusting everything golden. Like a landscape from the pages of Steinbeck—some Joad encountering for the first time the glory of the Salinas Valley.

Confronted by the eye-candy, it’s hard to believe that, less than 15 years ago, this hillside was covered in pitch pines. “When we bought the land in 2002, we didn’t know what we were going to do with it,” says David. “We had a goal of clearing some acreage, and hoped to produce an agricultural product that, even if it didn’t pay wages, would at least pay the mortgage on the house. But that was it. We didn’t have a specific plan.”

Which is to say, the Bryants had no intentions of growing chestnuts. And if you’d suggested to the couple they’d soon find themselves at the forefront of an agricultural revolution comparable to the effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay oyster? “I probably would have laughed at you,” says Kim. “My knowledge of chestnuts was more-or-less limited to a line from a Christmas song. I’d never even tasted one. ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,’ that’s all I knew.”

However, nowadays, expecting to reach production yields of more than 200,000 pounds of chestnuts a year within the next decade, the Bryant’s are comfortable with comparisons to the revitalized Bay oyster industry, and Salinas Valley both.

“We’d like to see this area become for chestnuts what the Salinas Valley is for almonds,” says David. “And we feel strongly we can make it happen.”

 

Beginnings

As they approached retirement age, the Bryants, both 53, became attracted to the idea of getting into farming. The two had been in the software business for well over a decade, with David founding a company specializing in providing corporations with learning management systems in the early-90s. After 10 years spent living in Richmond, they wanted to escape the grind and hustle of city life, and get closer to the land—to live the country lifestyle, as it were.

Raised on a small, Nelson County farm, David had worked the area’s apple and peach orchards as a teenager, and knew a thing or two about farming. Deciding on Shipman—a tiny, very rural community located a few miles off Route 29, where land could be got for relatively cheap—they made the plunge.

However, the decision to plant chestnuts came as a surprise.

“I came across an article on growing chestnut trees by accident, and we got interested,” says David. The more they researched, the more interested they became. “We quickly realized this was the perfect crop. It met all the hallmarks we were looking for.”

First off, the couple planned to retire. So, whatever they chose to farm, it could be only so physically demanding. Second, they wanted a specialty crop that was in demand, but not subject to the bubble-and-bust cycle of a fad. And third, like most entrepreneurs, they desired a product that would yield high returns.

“When you invest in automated machinery, growing and harvesting chestnuts doesn’t require the labor demanded by other crops, which is a huge plus,” explains David. “And when we looked at the legacy factor and the economics, it made great financial sense.”

In the spring of 2004, David and Kim made their decision. Planting an experimental crop of more than 100 chestnut trees on a 5-acre plot of orchard, Virginia Chestnuts was born.

Legacy Crop, Virginia Chestnuts, Nelson County
Photo by Annie Laura of 621 Studios

Legacy Crop

More than likely, if you’re a Virginian, you know about the disappearance of the American chestnut tree. Ranging from Maine to Missouri, the trees once stood upward of 100 feet tall with canopies equally as wide, numbered in the billions, and were more abundant than oaks. Praised by lumberjacks for their wood, farmers for their ability to feed livestock (both as raw nuts and milled feed), and gourmands as the finest chestnut in the world, the trees were also the single most important source of food for wildlife along the East Coast.

However, by 1950, mature American chestnuts were a thing of the past. What happened? “At the beginning of the 20th century, an Asian fungal disease was accidentally imported to the U.S.,” says vice president of education with the Virginia chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation, Warren Laws. “It was first detected in New York in 1904, and rapidly spread through eastern forests.” A wound pathogen, Cryphonectriaparasitica—i.e., the Chestnut Blight—entered the trees through an injury in the bark, killing vascular tissues and spreading until it choked off nutrient supplies above the point of infection. Within a few decades, the population was decimated.

Then, in 1983, TACF was founded, after botanist Robert T. Dunstan found a way to bring back the iconic tree. By means of a backcross breeding program, the organization began reintroducing the species to its native-habitat. “We used Chinese chestnut trees that were naturally resistant to the blight and crossed them with American chestnuts,” explains Laws. “Then, we backcrossed those trees to the American species. Each generation was then inoculated with the blight fungus, and only those trees with the highest resistance were used to breed further generations.” The process continued over seven generations, until an American chestnut tree retaining no Chinese characteristics beyond blight-resistance was produced. Using that stock, to date, the organization has established more than 680 planting locations on a total of 1,883 acres of public and private land.

Meanwhile, with the trees slow, steady reappearance, commercial nut growers took notice. While TACF’s mission focused on the tree’s reintroduction to the deciduous North American ecosystem, and was essentially one of conservation, in 1996, a group of 30 active and would-be chestnut farmers joined forces and founded the Chestnut Growers of America. A nonprofit, according to Richmond-based secretary-treasurer, Jack Kirk, the organization focused on promoting chestnuts in the marketplace, increasing consumer knowledge, disseminating information to growers, improving communication between growers, supporting research and breeding work, and generally furthering the interests and aptitude of chestnut growers.

“This was a legacy crop that, for most Americans, had become a kind of legend,” says Kirk. “In the 19th century, everyone in the country knew what a chestnut tasted like. And today, as more and more people learn about the comeback of the American chestnut, and discover the great taste of these nuts, we’re going to see astronomical growth in demand.”

Since its founding 21 years ago, the organization has grown to include more than 100 grower-members—one of which is, you guessed it, Virginia Chestnuts. Both Kirk and the Bryants agree, the number is only going to rise.

 

Chestnut Economics

While there is a nostalgic element driving the return of the American Chestnut tree, in the eyes of entrepreneurial-minded commercial growers, the nuts are a specialty agricultural product worth big money. Furthermore, the market is wide-open.

According to a 2015 report compiled by the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, at the time of the last comprehensive agricultural census in 2012, the country imported nearly 4,000 metric tons of chestnuts, valued around $13 million. With 919 farms and 3,700 acres dedicated to production, U.S. growers accounted for just one percent of the world’s chestnut crop. Domestically, their market share was less than 10 percent.

“The U.S. is the only country in the world that can grow chestnuts that doesn’t have a large commercial chestnut industry,” says David Bryant, adding that, in an industry dominated by freshness, products grown close to home are an easy sell. “American-grown nuts can reach the market sooner, fresher, and bring a higher price than imports from Italy and France, which are shipped in container ships across an ocean and two continents. The market is ripe, and it’s waiting.”

Meanwhile, in terms of orchard management, chestnut trees are big producers and can bring lucrative returns. “They begin to bear in only 3–5 years and, by 10 years, can produce as much as 10–20 pounds per tree,” says R.D. Wallace, founder of Florida’s Chestnut Hill Nursery & Orchards, one of the nation’s oldest chestnut orchards. And once they mature? “At 15–20 years, they can produce as much as 50–100 pounds a tree, or up to 2,000–3,000 pounds an acre each year.”

Wholesale prices for large, high-quality chestnuts range between $3–5 a pound, and higher for organically grown chestnuts, with retail prices clocking in as much as $10 a pound. “Chestnuts offer better returns than pecans, hazelnuts, almonds, and many other tree crops,” says Bryant. “From a financial standpoint, it’s a no-brainer.”

And as more consumers learn about what connoisseurs consider the world’s most superior chestnut, domestic consumption and demand is projected to rise.

“U.S. consumption is less than 1 ounce per person per year, but 1 pound per capita in Europe, and 2 pounds in Asia,” says Wallace. “It would take 120,000 acres of chestnut orchards to supply U.S. consumption at European levels, which would create a new $300 million a year agricultural industry for America.”

What does all this mean for Virginia growers? According to Bryant, those producing high-quality chestnuts will have “a virtually unlimited market available to us for many years to come.”

Virginia Chestnut, Rise of Virginia Chestnuts
Photo by Annie Laura of 621 Studios

The Rise of Virginia Chestnuts

While growing chestnuts sounded easy on paper, in practice, it wasn’t. At least not at first. “The deer ate pretty much all the trees we planted in 2004, so we had to circle back and start over,” says David. Undaunted by the failure, the couple decided to go big and, in 2007, planted another 1,000 trees. This time, equipped with protective sheaths, the saplings survived. In 2008, pleased by the trees’ progress, the Bryants added another 400 saplings, bringing their orchard’s total acreage to 23.

By 2013, the trees were ready to produce sellable nuts. However, there came a second tragedy. “The cicadas came and ravaged our trees,” says Kim. Hatching every 13 or 17 years, the insects burrow into the tips of young tree limbs and lay their eggs. Instead of giving way to blossoms and chestnuts, the tips wither up and fall to the ground. Adolescent trees are particularly vulnerable. “Because the damage occurs in a little over a week, even pesticides are useless—there was really nothing we could do but sit back and cry.”

Luckily, mature trees aren’t as susceptible to damage. “Next time they come, we don’t anticipate things being nearly as bad,” says David.

Be that as it may, the damage was extensive, and led to the loss of both 2013 and 2014’s crop. However, in 2015, the trees bounced back. “We had a banner year and sold around 8,000 pounds of nuts,” says David. In 2016, despite heavy rains in the month of May leaving many of the blossoms unpollinated, the trees produced almost as many nuts as they had the year before. And this year? The couple anticipates a yield of more than 10,000 pounds.

“As the trees grow, each year is going to get a little better,” says Kim. “Eventually, our trees will mature, and mature trees can produce between 50 to 500 pounds of nuts in a given year.” By then, the couple will have thinned their orchard to contain around 1,000 trees. Low-balling the estimate, if they produce just 50,000 pounds of chestnuts a year, and sell at a dirt-cheap rate of $3 per pound, Virginia Chestnuts will gross around $150,000.

And while that’s exciting, in terms of his overall vision, David says it’s but a drop in the ocean.

 

The Future is Today

When David Bryant says he wants to transform Nelson County into the Salinas of chestnuts, he isn’t joking. “We live in the ideal environment for the chestnut tree,” he says. “You can plant one, two, three, or even 10 acres and see high yields and high returns. And there are literally thousands of small parcels in the area that are unused or underutilized that would be perfect for growing.”

What’s stopping folks from diving in? As Bryant sees it, the factors that deter investment are three-fold. One, an absence of successful precedents and know-how. Two, the high-cost of processing equipment. And three, a distaste for marketing and sales. Seeking to address these concerns—and the gaping hole in domestic production—the Bryants formed an informal growers’ collective in 2012. “We wanted to offer folks in the area a way to learn about farming chestnuts, as well as an avenue into the industry,” says Kim. “We provide new and beginning farmers with premium tree stock, growing expertise and consultation, and will buy what they produce.”

With $25,000 of automated processing and packaging machinery, and a ready made network of buyers ranging from small grocery stores, produce distribution centers, and restaurants, Virginia Chestnuts allows growers to simply plant their trees, harvest their crop, and sell directly to the company. “Most people don’t want to deal with sales, and its imprudent for small-scale growers to invest in the expense of machinery,” says David, adding that, over the course of the next decade, he will likely purchase another $100,000 worth ofadditional storage and processing equipment.

Currently working with five local, start-up growers, the Bryants foresee that number increasing 100-fold. “The vision is a future where you drive these roads and see American chestnut trees all over the place,” says David. “We want to see a new, local farming industry blossom and bring even more diversity and richness to an already rich agricultural community. And we’re devoted to making that happen.”

To learn more about Virginia Chestnuts, visit VirginiaChestnuts.com.

Eric J. Wallace
Author: Eric J. Wallace

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