This was a group project of the 40 plus member Southeast Iowa Nut Growers Cooperative. Despite the name, the co-op includes members from Illinois, Missouri, and other parts of Iowa. The one thing all group members have in common is that they are growers of chestnuts. Chestnut operations range in size from less than one acre to over 50 acres. In some cases, chestnut production is the only enterprise on the farm- in other cases; it is part of a diversified farm with livestock and other crops. Occupations of group members range from retired doctors to full-time farmers.
Chestnuts are easily grown in a truly sustainable system: they can be planted, maintained, and harvested entirely without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, without annual plowing, planting, and cultivation, and without the use of equipment powered by fossil fuels. The soil remains completely covered by perennial vegetation, which creates a high level of biodiversity. Soil erosion is about 10,000 times less than what occurs under conventional row crops. Runoff is nearly eliminated and infiltration is greatly increased, which helps to re-charge ground water. Chestnut trees take the greenhouse gas CO2 out of the atmosphere and put it into long-term storage, reducing the potential for global warming. As a primary enterprise, chestnut production has enough profit potential that a farm family could earn a good living, with a high quality of life, on as few as 10 acres.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
The goal of this project was to use value-added processing to try to establish a market for the small-sized chestnuts being grown by co-op members (about 1/3 of the total crop). The original plan called for purchasing a chestnut sheller to shell both cured and dried chestnuts, and a grinder to grind dried/shelled nuts into chestnut flour. The cured chestnuts were to be packaged and sold as ready-to-use shelled chestnut kernels.
After the grant was awarded, it was discovered that the only manufacturer of the mechanical chestnut shelling machine had died after having built only two shellers. The whereabouts of one of the machines was unknown, and the other had been sent to Canada. The owner of that machine was contacted, and after some long discussions via telephone about its design and operation, we decided to try to build our own machine. We were granted permission from NCR-SARE staff to use grant funds for that purpose.
By February 2004, a sorting machine and a proto-type chestnut sheller were built and successfully tested. The very smallest chestnuts were dried, shelled, and ground into flour. Larger nuts, which were still too small to sell fresh, in-shell, we cured (allowed to partially dry), shelled, and packaged as “whole kernels”, “kernel pieces”, or kernel crumbles.”
Gayle Olson, Iowa State University Home Economist, sampled the products and tested recipes. Dr. Lester A. Wilson, Food Processing Professor at Iowa State University, assisted with questions regarding food processing safety.
Samples of the four products (kernels, pieces, crumbles, and flour) were distributed to restaurateurs in Des Moines, Iowa City, Ames and Grinnell in Iowa, and at an organic trade show in Chicago, IL. The response of the chefs was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. A list of over 40 potential restaurant/customers was assembled.
At this point we achieved the objectives of the project. We found it was feasible to mechanically shell both cured and dried, small-sized chestnuts. We found they could be processed into products which could be marketed to upscale restaurants for a profit, thereby establishing a market for our otherwise unmarketable small sized nuts. This results in a major change in the economics of chestnut growing, since the entire crop can be sold at a profit, instead of only the larger-sized nuts.
All of the 40 plus members of Southeast Iowa Nut Growers Cooperative were interested in having a good market for their small sized nuts, but only a few were interested in getting into the nut processing business. Three members of the co-op formed a partnership (Winfield Tree-grown Foods LLP) to purchase small sized nuts and process them for marketing to restaurants. In its first season of operation, the partnership processed over $7000 worth of small-sized nuts from the co-op. This was income paid to growers for nuts that otherwise would have been fed to squirrels.
As acreage and production increase in the Midwest, it is hoped that Winfield Tree-grown Foods will continue to be able to purchase, process and market all of the small sized chestnuts produced by Southeast Iowa Nut Growers Cooperative. With a profitable market for the entire crop secure, more growers will be attracted to this truly sustainable enterprise of chestnut growing.
A number of news articles were written about the project and published in various local and regional newspapers. An international trade publication, The Western Chestnut Grower, did an excellent feature article. A report is being prepared for the Iowa, Nebraska, and Northern Nut Growers Associations’ and the Practical Farmers of Iowa newsletters, and a video of a processing demonstration will be available on request, and for conferences, meetings, field days, etc.