Final report for FNE18-896
The purpose of this project was to research successful chestnut cooperative marketing and aggregation operations and discover niche marketing opportunities of the American chestnut. The project team visited two scales of chestnut cooperatives; Route 9 Chestnut Cooperate in Carrolton, OH and Chestnut Growers Inc. in Michigan. Secondly, the project team presented two taste testing events to gauge consumer preferences between European, Chinese, American and American Hybrid species of chestnut. The first taste testing results found that Europeans were by far the preferred species with American, Hybrid and Chinese following respectively. This may have been due to improper curing of the Chinese species chestnuts. The second event found that Europeans and Chinese were tied with first with the American third and Hybrid again last. This shows that European and Chinese species are highly prized for consumption while full American species have some preferential characteristic while American-Chinese hybrids need further breeding work to increase taste preferences. The project concluded with a series of presentation and webinars that can be found within this report. Further work includes the construction of small scale aggregation and processing equipment and networking events in late 2020 to seek opportunities for enhancing broader scale cooperative participation and potential for public-private partnerships.
The goal of this project is to create a model for a regional processing and marketing system for chestnuts that can help farmers optimize their production and income from their chestnut crops while encouraging the implementation of perennial agricultural systems throughout the Northeast.
Chestnuts are already being grown throughout the northeast, as incidental trees on farmsteads; in restoration and experimental plantings; on small farms; and in alley cropping and silvopasture systems where they are grown as fall mast for livestock. However, there is little support for famers who wish to expand their market reach. This project aims to begin to develop enhanced access to markets and processing facilities in the northeast by reviewing existing models in the Midwest and by beginning to develop a processing center at Windswept Farm for the Central Pennsylvania region.
In addition to providing economic benefits to farmers in the region, this project seeks to discover the niche marketing opportunities of American chestnut species as compared to Asian and hybrid varieties as an economic means towards enhancing the preservation of this once vastly dominant and culturally important tree species.
From pre-settlement times, the American chestnut was a food staple in the northeastern United States, providing food for wildlife, livestock, and humans alike. Because its nuts were a valued foodstuff and fodder, and the timber was prized for its rot resistance, the trees were favored in woodlot management and in some areas represented 40% of the forest canopy. The chestnut industry was flourishing in the early 1900s, when American chestnuts began dying from a blight introduced on Asian varietals. Chestnut production rapidly declined as efforts failed to stem the spread of the disease and in the ensuing half century, over four billion trees succumbed to the blight.
The American Chestnut Foundation was founded in 1983 with the goal of restoring the American chestnut to the forests of its original range – including the entire Northeast. Volunteers have planted thousands of trees, many of which have reached reproductive maturity. Because the trees were established as part of a breeding program and rather than for agricultural production, many of the nuts remain unharvested and could be a key component of chestnut supply in the region.
In 2014, partners received Northeast SARE funding for a project ‘Northeast Advanced Agroforestry Training for Natural Resource and Agricultural Educators’ to promote agroforestry through out the northeast. The partners facilitated 14 workshop days and 12 webinars that covered various aspects of agroforestry, including regional chestnut production. Throughout this education and outreach, coordinators learned that chestnut production would be an attractive enterprise to farmers if there were processing facilities and demonstrated markets for chestnuts; in fact, a number of farmers are already growing chestnut trees, without marketing plans. Though there are a number of existing successful cooperatives throughout the Mid-west region, these facilities do not have the capacity to serve the needs of the Northeast region. As of 2017, there are currently no known chestnut specific cooperatives marketing Northeast-produced nuts to the general public. Thus, not only is there a major gap in regionally-based processing facilities, but also a gap in wildly available knowledge about successfully establishing these facilities within the northeast.
Here, the American Chestnut Foundation proved to be a valuable resource – with connections to existing chestnut cooperatives in Ohio and Michigan and with hundreds of existing orchards throughout the northeast. These co-ops have indicated that there is a strong market for chestnuts, both domestic and international. In addition, the Northeast is well-positioned for distribution to high population urban centers and additional ethnic markets where chestnuts are a seasonal and cultural tradition.
Lastly, there have been no known research trials on the niche marketing opportunities available for northeast-grown chestnuts, or on the differences between marketing native American species versus non-native varietals. This project seeks to provide the northeast community with resources to implement chestnut aggregation models, but also to determine whether there lies a niche market potential for the American chestnut. This market would further support large-scale conservation and economic restoration of a once vastly important food-bearing species back into the agricultural landscapes of the northeast.
- - Technical Advisor (Researcher)
In July 2018 a group of cooperators traveled to visit with the Chestnut Growers Inc. out of Michigan State to study their cooperative aggregation and production models. In attendance were; Erik Hagan (Windswept Farm), Tracey Coulter (PA DCNR), Kate MacFarland (National Agroforestry Center), Steve Hoy (Farmer and The American Chestnut Foundation) and Rick Hartield (Farmer and PA DCNR). We were able to tour the Michigan State Extension Facilities that support the Chestnut Growers Inc. cooperative and better understand the public/private relationships that they have fostered during the developments of this producer owned coop. Secondly, we were able to learn more about Treeborn, an independent value added enterprise that works directly with the coop and MSU extension for developing additional value added chestnut products such as frozen, chipped and floured chestnuts. Tours of various cooperative members orchards as well as Nash’s Nursery in Owosso, Michigan provided and immense amount of insight into chestnut production strategies, cultivars and propagation methods within a rapidly expanding agricultural community. Details of cooperative development, MSU extension relationships, production numbers, membership structures, facility and processing equipment, challenges and opportunities are highlighted in the attached Chestnut Cooperative Outreach presentation.
In October of 2018 the group mentioned prior as well as Sara Fitzsimmons (The American Chestnut Foundation) and Meghan Giroux (Farmer and Interlace Agroforestry) traveled to Route 9 Chestnut Growers Cooperative in Carrolton Ohio. This producer owned and 100% private cooperative provides insight into an alternative scale from the previous tour to the Chestnut Growers Inc. With no direct connection to land grant extension resources, a much smaller membership pool, yet older production systems we were able to identify key differences in cooperative approaches based on scale and resource availability. Here at Route 9 we were able to tour older orchards as well as active breeding programs of various Chinese and American cultivars. Alternatively from Michigan whose priority production focus on European spp. known for larger size and higher yield, Northeast growers are faced with increased blight and insect pressures thus leading a focus on Chinese and American hybrid cultivars. This tour not only provided us more insight into breeding programs directly specific to Northeast growing conditions but a vast resource available to collaborate and continue into northeast specific developments. Similarly to the Michigan tours, details on this cooperative model is shared in the attached outreach presentation to represent an alternative scale and resource approach for cooperative development as well as production strategies for Northeast producers to consider.
Meet the Faculty Chestnut Tasting Event:
In November of 2018, Steve Hoy and Sara Fitzsimmons (The American Chestnut Foundation) presenting on the restoration of the American chestnut spp. through economic marketing and blight resistance breeding programs to approximately 150 – 175 attendees. This culminated in an interactive evaluation of attendees preferences between various chestnut species (European, Chinese, American, American Hybrid and Chinese) through a raw chestnut taste testing survey. All attendees were presented with 4 raw, uncooked chestnuts that were split in half with a coorresponding number and colored paper cup for each variety. The attendees were asked to try each chestnut individually and score their preferences on the provided survey. Each place mat/survey is demonstrated by the image below.
The purpose of the survey was to gain a better understanding as to whether their were taste preferences between the 4 species. This would inform the project committee on whether or not their were unique niche marketing opportunities for the production of various chestnut species that can be grown in the Northeast region. The results are further discussed in the section below.
Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture Conference 2019 Taste Testing Event:
February 7, 2019 – PASA social hour tasting: Erik Hagan, Tracey Coulter, Kate Macfarland, and Steve Hoy attended the PASA conference in Lancaster, PA and had the second tasting event for raw chestnuts during the social hour in the exhibitor hall. Over 140 individuals voluntarily participated in the tasting. As with the Huddle with the Faculty event, the same 4 species of chestnuts were provided for individuals to sample. Individuals first removed the kernel from the shell, sampled all 4 chestnuts, then voted for their favorite chestnut by placing a colored paper cup in the corresponding colored jar. Since the event took place during the PASA conference social hour, there were over 1000 attendees engaged in various cheese, wine and other accoutrements available while interacting with local vendors and industry exhibitors. Due to the scale of this event, this tasting was structured respectively in order to maximize the number of participants engaged, but unfortunately, led to an inability to effectively administer any surveys for additional information. Rather then place mats provided with a survey, attendees were asked to engage by taking a box of 4 chestnuts, within respective colored paper cups. The attendees were then asked to place the respective colored cup from their favorite taste selection into a corresponding colored mason jar. Project partners were well coordinated to ensure one selection from each participant and engaged with the participants as much as possible to demonstrate the purpose of the project and the potential for chestnut production systems in the region. The images below demonstrate the scale of the event and the structure for which the tasting was provided. Results are demonstrated in the following section.
Other Taste Testing Events:
We were intending for the 2019 season to administer at least 2 taste testing events as area farmers’ markets to gauge customer interests in species and niche marketing of American chestnuts. Unfortunately, the central Pennsylvania region experienced heavier the normal rainfall during flower set in all of the harvestable mature orchards, leading to a crop failure for 2019. This was a major set back for the project that was intended to gauge consistency in potential local marketing opportunities that were successful in 2018 while also adding to the taste testing data with consumer preferences. Fortunately, we were able to secure a Specialty Crop Block Grant that will allow future taste testing events in 2020 and 2021 with a hopeful harvestable crop. Crop failures are quite common due to weather challenges facing not only the northeast but across the US. However, most crop failures are never as significant as the one we saw in 2019 in central PA, with not even a 10% harvestable crop. Often, crop failure is due to periodical cicada hatchings or disease whereby a significant loss of around 40% has been found. Disease and other pest pressures usually allow for harvestable crops to be utilized for processed good such as flours and dehydrated chestnuts. However, climate failures often lead to sigificant losses in the nut quantity not nut quality. We do not foresee this to become a frequent event, but was a significant lesson learned that relates to almost all perennial cropping systems, especially given changing climatic conditions.
Meet the Faculty Chestnut Tasting Event:
During the first taste testing event, hosted at Penn State Huddle with the Faculty event, between 150-175 participants attended and were offered the tastings of raw chestnuts. Of the questionnaires distributed, 91 were filled out. The results can be found in the attached spreadsheet. HuddleWithTheFacultySurvey .The survey was to gain a sense as to the taste preferences of attendees on the differences between European spp., American spp., American/Chinese Hybrid spp., and Chinese spp. The survey results in the following: European spp. were the most popular, followed by American, then the American hybrid, and finally the Chinese chestnut, ranked last.
The European varietals came from the Chestnut Growers Inc., processed and stored by an established cooperative. The American, American Hybrid and Chinese were harvested, processed and stored by the project team. An interesting consideration here may be found in the storage and moisture level differences between the two facilities. Chestnuts become sweeter as the kernel dries, and we found over the course of this year that our chestnuts were much sweeter and with a more appealing texture when stored in mesh bags rather than sealed, which were intially used for breeding purposed. This was a major learning curve for us in our first year harvesting and storing for production at a scale. Thus, future taste testing events may highlight differences in preferences if we are able to achieve similar processing and storage techniques between each of the species. In the Northeast, we are finding it challenging to produce European chestnuts due to the similar blight pressures American species face. While extensive work is being committed to increasing blight resistance through American Hybrid developments, much less work is being done locally on Europeans. Thus, our focus for Northeast production has been largely on Chinese species and the Chinese/American Hybrid. Initial survey results do highlight an opportunity for American and American Hybrid preferences, while also shining new light on the potential need for considering similar developments in European varietals and also more appropriate Chinese varietal selection for taste not just survivability. More details here will be expressed in further outreach materials for suggesting species and varietal selection for meeting consumer interest.
Additionally, most of the attendees say they had tried chestnuts before (55%), but several specified that referred to water chestnuts. Thus presenting a need for education on true chestnuts during any subsequent trials. 50% of those returning surveys suggested that they would buy chestnuts, but most of those were folks who had already tried them (78%) vs those who had not tried them before (42%).
Though this taste testing survey had major limitations (raw vs. cooked) and is quite limited in breadth, we are able to use this time to educate consumers and producers on the diversity of chestnuts available locally. Additionally, we were much better prepared for the second taste testing event in February in terms of adequate storage and ripening of chestnuts to be evaluated appropriately.
Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture Conference 2019 Taste Testing Event:
During this event, the project team handed out 141 chestnut taste test sampling boxes containing 1 chestnut of each of the 4 spp. (European, Chinese, American Hybrid and American). Do to the scale of the event and placement within a social hour, it was not practical to administer the surveys, instead the group focused time on ensuring the sampling protocols were fulfilled correctly and engaged with as many participants on the purpose of the project and network among potential area producers and processors for potential partnerships.
As you can see in the graph below, European and Chinese chestnuts were tied for first place by a significant margin with full American in third and the American Hybrid in fourth place.
The majority of the chestnuts available to American consumers are of European genetics, however, with blight pressures and climatic conditions, the northeast is better adept at the production of Chinese cultivars. The Europeans utilized in this tasting were varietals selected, produced and processed for the sole purpose of marketing and fresh consumption by the general public. The American, American Hybrid, and Chinese spp. were harvested from trees whose sole production purpose is for increasing blight resistance in the American Hybrid genetics. Thus, there is certainly some inconsistency with this testing methodology since genetic selection for taste and texture has not been a focus on the genetics harvested from vs. the European spp. that were being presented at this time. However, this event demonstrated that Chinese and Europeans had similar results in the taste preference category regardless of the varietals trialed during this event. This demonstrates that the northeast is capable of producing high value preferred tasting nuts with blight resistance that can match those produced in regions where Europeans were the presumed preferred varietal due to size and flavor. Certainly, more work is still required for improvements in flavor and production considerations for the American Hybrids, while also recognizing that varietal consideration at the production level will be critical for scaling the chestnut industry to compete with imported products.
The main purpose of this project was to assess the current chestnut cooperatives in operation throughout the US to gain a sense of the physical and invisible infrastructure and methodologies for success. With a stronger sense of the chestnut industry under development and interviewing successful operations, the knowledge obtained by the project team can aid in developing and assisting in the development of various scale cooperatives throughout the Northeast region. The team was able to visit two very successful chestnut cooperatives with varying types of resources and infrastructure to give a sense of not only the potential for further chestnut industry developments but also the methods by which they are funded and supported. As described prior, Route 9 Chestnut Cooperative is fully privately funded with minimal grant support, while Chestnut Growers Inc represents a statewide public/private approach supported through efforts of MSU land grant institution. This allowed the project team to not only see the pros and cons of each but also to gain a sense for the need to reach out to area partners for discovering a broader community effort. This will lead to continued meetings and conversations with other interested northeast regional groups for discovering novel approaches in developing chestnut cooperatives that meet the interest and demand of the regional stakeholders.
The second major consideration for the project was to gain a better sense of the niche marketing opportunities that various chestnut species may have given the particular northeast growing conditions. The European cultivars have the strongest foot hold in domestic consumption, largely attributed to their availability, size and taste characteristics that have been developed for meeting global consumer demands. Chinese spp. have had similar efforts in cultivar development but are much less available for domestic producers to achieve due to trade relations. The blight pressures found within the Northeast lead to increased challenges for the long term viability of production of European cultivars, however, are well posed for the production of Chinese. Coupled with the American Chestnut Foundation’s efforts to breed blight resistance into American spp. leads to future opportunities for marketing American hybrid cultivars for increase domestic production in blight prone regions. The project team wanted to gain a sense as to whether or not the current Chinese and Chinese-American hybrids could compete with European cultivars in blind taste testing. Though statistically not a viable study, the project team learned a tremendous amount concerning the characteristics that must be considered for cultivar development for the raw product markets. Sweetness, ease of peeling and loose pellicule (pellicule intrusion) are rather important considerations that most American genetics have not been selected for. There is indeed much work that must continue with breeding of chestnut cultivars for not only meeting these marketing characteristics but also in meeting the production needs for blight resilience and yield. The project team is still rather confident that there is a serious potential for Chinese spp. production in the Northeast which can successfully compete with the European cultivars in the current marketplace, especially in the near term while continued breeding programs may begin to focus on hybrid developments for meeting these criteria as well.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
In July 2018 a group of cooperators traveled to visit with the Chestnut Growers Inc. out of Michigan State to study their cooperative aggregation and production models. In attendance were; Erik Hagan (Windswept Farm), Tracey Coulter (PA DCNR), Kate MacFarland (National Agroforestry Center), Steve Hoy (Farmer and The American Chestnut Foundation) and Rick Hartield (Farmer and PA DCNR). MSU extension relationships, production numbers, membership structures, facility and processing equipment, challenges and opportunities and more will be highlighted in detail within the outreach and proposed chestnut cooperative development strategy which will be developed later in 2019.
In October of 2018 the group mentioned prior as well as Sara Fitzsimmons (The American Chestnut Foundation) and Meghan Giroux (Farmer and Interlace Agroforestry) traveled to Route 9 Chestnut Growers Cooperative in Carrolton Ohio. This producer owned and 100% private cooperative provides insight into an alternative scale from the previous tour to the Chestnut Growers Inc.
Meet the Faculty Chestnut Tasting Event:
In November of 2018, Steve Hoy and Sara Fitzsimmons (The American Chestnut Foundation) presenting on the restoration of the American chestnut spp. through economic marketing and blight resistance breeding programs. This culminated in an interactive evaluation of attendees preferences between various chestnut species (European, Chinese, American, American Hybrid and Chinese) through a raw chestnut taste testing survey. Attendance for the presentation was somewhere between 150 – 175 attendees.
On February 8th 2019, Erik Hagan and Tracey Coulter presented at the 2019 PASA Sustainable Agriculture Conference.
This presentation focused on the findings of the teams research into the intricacies of chestnut cooperatives including global and domestic economics, equipment costs, diversity of scale, membership structures, supporting structures etc. They also discussed the opportunities and developments of the Pennsylvania focused chestnut cooperative through the support of the Specialty Crop Block Grant program. Tracey Coulter also discussed the history of chestnuts native range, blight of the American chestnuts and genetics that can support a new restoration of the species for ecological and economic benefits. There were 32 attendees in the presentation ranging from farmers, technical service providers, researchers to processors.
On June 7th, 2019, Erik Hagan and Tracey Coulter presented on the project for the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic Agroforestry Webinar Series, which was developed by another NESARE Professional Development Program grant.
This webinar, similar to the PASA conference presentation, allowed Erik and Tracey the opportunity to inform the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic region on the findings of this projects research and invite growers and participants an opportunity to engage and discuss modalities for developing a PA specific chestnut cooperative. There were 46 attendees to this webinar. This webinar led to 4 post-webinar conversations with various groups of farmers throughout the Northeast interested in chestnut production, marketing and cooperative development.
On June 26th, 2019 Erik Hagan, Tracey Coulter and Kate MacFarland presented at the North American Agroforestry Conference for the Association for Temperate Agroforestry hosted in Corvallis, OR.
This biannual conference hosts members of the association from across North America and rotates location. This year, despite being in Corvallis, OR the majority of participants were from the Northeast including PA, NY and MD. The agroforestry community is a primary avenue for gaining producers and stakeholders interested in alternative tree crop systems. This presentation, allowed us the opportunity to engage further with potential PA area partners for larger scale cooperative development for growers in the PA region. Similar to the presentation at the PASA conference earlier in the year, this presentation also allowed for Kate MacFarland of the USDA National Agroforestry Center to describe SARE grant and Specialty Crop Block grant programs more in depth and how State, Federal, and Local governmental agency partnerships can be used to help with the development of such aggregation programs. There were 26 attendees in this presentation.
Other Educational offerings:
Chestnut Growers of American 2020:
Due to the extent of our project and corresponding outreach, the project team was asked to host the 2020 Chestnut Growers of American meeting in State College, PA. The event was planned for a 3 day conference with 2 full days of presentations/panels andone full day of field tours, including Windswept Agroforestry Farm and with a reception dinner at the on-site ReFarm Cafe. The intention was to not only present on the opportunities and lessons learned on the finding of this research project, but to host a series of round-table discussion for regional networking opportunities to gauge potential for broader scale cooperation between farmers and processors for scaling up the chestnut aggregation throughout the northeast. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 the event has been postponed until summer of 2021. Though this event was not supported directly by this NE SARE project, the partners were to utilize the momentum gained through this project as as opportunity to highlight the work supported by NE SARE.
Chestnut Cooperative Webinar Series:
As a method to maintain interest in the Chestnut Growers of American meeting that was postponed as well as the momentum of chestnut aggregation potential for the Northeast, the project partners have decided to host a 2 day webinar conference focused primarily on this topic based on the networks and lessons learned from this project. In September of 2020, the first webinar will be conducted. Erik Hagan will facilitate a podcast type interview of Greg Miller (Route 9 Chestnut Cooperative), Roger Blackwell (Chestnut Growers Inc.), Tom and Nancy Wahl (Red Fern Farm), Bill Davidson ( Savanna Institute) and likely others. The intent is to not deliver a similar presentations given during this project by translating the lessons learned from this project, rather coordinate space for those actualizing the work throughout the US to present on their own successes. The second part of the day 1 webinar will allow attendees 5 minute rapid presentations on their work, intentions for the industry and resources available to assist. The last hour will be a Q&A discussion for those interested to specifically address questions not covered during the initial interview. Thus, day 1 will be not only informative by bringing in experts in the field but also allowing an opportunity for attendees to network within the industry and geographic range. Day 2 of the webinar conference will allow coordinated round-table conversations where-by attendees will be divided into group discussions based on a set of criteria. The goal for this meeting is to offer an opportunity for broad scale participation and potential partnerships for the intent to discover the best possible route for northeast specific chestnut cooperative opportunities. Rather then the project team describing specifically what we think may be the best route, rather allow the community to co-create the best possible outcomes for successful industry development. Details can be found at https://www.facebook.com/NEMAAgroforestry/
As described in the education/outreach section of this report, presentations and post-conference conversations has led to tremendous interest and information sharing amongst the team and area producers. Though the team was not able to administer pre and post presentation surveys to garner change in knowledge from these producers and service providers, the efforts have led to increased awareness among the 4 farmers directly involved in the group and at least 4 other groups of farmers looking to implement their own chestnut aggregation facilities.
Considerations on scale was an interesting knowledge gain from this project. The two facilities researched, as described in the attached outreach presentation, are at opposite sides of the spectrum of the scale and investment support structures. Route 9 chestnut coop was privately developed by farmers, scaling up as production increased over time, while Chestnut Growers Inc is financially support as a public-private partnership through as statewide effort hosted by MSU Extension and has scaled up to meet the potential statewide production while supporting producers in meeting the facilities, research and educational capabilities. We have found the Route 9 model to be the most effective approach for our region as PSU extension, nor other state agencies, currently do not have the resources or investments to implement similar statewide chestnut industry programming at this time.
However, we are engaging in conversations and hosting networking events in late 2020 with the hopes to gauge interest in area partners on a more coordinated region wide effort that may lead to more extensive scaling opportunities. By potentially bringing in remote aggregators together in the early stages of development, we may be able to meet a volume that allows for statewide programs to flourish as production levels increase. We are hopeful to gain perspective as to whether this would be a perspective industry wide approach during follow up meetings and garnering key leadership among participants to launch broader cooperative programs or alternatives in partnerships dependent on community interest and potential leadership. The hope here is that larger northeast industry stakeholder engagement may lead to novel public-private partnership/investment opportunities for future work.
Another key finding that our group was originally considering for the initial development of this Central Pennsylvania Chestnut Coop was in the harvesting of remote sites. The idea was to utilize leftover production from a range of current orchards managed by the American Chestnut Foundation’s breeding orchards as well as other producer trees found throughout the central Pennsylvania region, as many old farmsteads and urban tree plantings tend to have multiple trees in a mature stage of production, yet are under utilized. This concept is being discussed by a majority of other groups considering localized chestnut aggregation and marketing. We initiated this program by managing the remote sites for increased production and ease of harvesting. However, we have found this to be excessively inefficient and not a viable option for starting a chestnut cooperative with high quality product as a cost-effective program. Chestnuts do not ripen all of their nuts at one time, rather are spread out based on seasonal weather and can last a few weeks from individual trees or plots. They also cannot be harvest off of the tree effectively, rather they are entirely ground harvested in order to ensure proper sugar content. Secondly, the chestnut weevil is very prevalent in our area. Harvest from these areas become difficult whereby the crop must be harvested and heat treated before weevil larvae development gets to far or emerges. One or two days after the nut fall from the burr, the larvae rapidly develops consuming the nut meat from the inside. The larvae then leaves the nut in it’s emergence stage leaving a small visible hole in the shell. This greatly reduces the quality of nut crop for fresh nut marketing and sales. This barrier has led the group to decide to focus on one or two remote sites that can be effectively managed for IPM strategies for the chestnut weevil and harvested on a daily basis to ensure nut quality is maintained.
Another option that many groups consider and we have been highly informed by the coops interviewed during this project to avoid, is modeled similar to black walnut cooperative harvest. This program sets up remote collection stations, allowing individuals to bring harvest over the course of several months to be purchased by collection points, processed, then sent to a centralized aggregation facility. Again, the challenge here is nut quality and weevil control. It has been described by the successful coop owners and our experience that this is also not a viable option as chestnuts must be harvest daily and processed within 24 hours in regions with heavy weevil populations until further IPM strategies can be developed to ensure reduced infestations and protocols.
Though this project is still in it’s beginning stages there has been a major success already in development. We have found that there is a burgeoning market ready and available for chestnut production to fulfill consumer demand both at a cooperative scale (ie. with distribution to major urban markets, etc.) but also locally during initial cooperative development.
This 2018 year, we were able to provide Windswept Farm CSA members with chestnuts in order to gauge their interest in diversifying produce CSA programs with nut products. The excitement and earnest from the majority of our members was enlightening, with many requesting addition whole and canned chestnuts past the CSA distribution period (November). Additionally, here in rural central PA we were able to establish partnerships with 2 distilleries to make a chestnut liquor, 1 brewery to make a chestnut porter and a number of restaurants to incorporate chestnuts throughout their fall-early winter seasonal menus. Though the liquor and porters have not yet been released, the feedback we have received on whole fresh chestnuts was more than enough to encourage cooperators local to central PA to further investigate the development of a multi-farm chestnut coop. The lessons learned during our tours and interviews with larger chestnut cooperatives in the US have led us to further evaluate the potential for processed chestnuts (ie. canned, pureed, frozen and milled into flour, etc.). As described in the grant proposal, Windswept Farm is currently developing it’s own capacity towards processed farm goods with the development of a farm-to-table restaurant (ReFarm Cafe opening June 2019) with additional partners. This past year, we were able to rent space to learn how to process canned chestnuts and chestnut butter which has been a success with our current customer base. The ReFarm Cafe has committed to having a chestnut flour bread be standard pallet cleanser for each patron. The hope here is to additionally educate cafe patrons of the quality of Northeast produced chestnuts to further aid in developing a consumer base.
The resources provided with the grant allowed the project team to manage for future increased production of Chinese and American hybrid chestnut orchards previously utilized by the American Chestnut Foundation for breeding stock. This allowed us resources to learn smaller scale processing and storage methods on-farm as well as stock for tasting events to better understand consumer preferences for species types for better market analysis and niche marketing development. The hope here is better understand American hybrid preferences and niche that can further support the American Chestnut Foundation’s efforts in restoring the American chestnut back into the landscape. This approach will hopefully provide farmers and land stewards new markets and approaches towards regenerative developments.
This year, we were also able to receive a Specialty Crop Block grant to further enhance the capacity of this NE SARE farmer grant in order to begin scaling up our processing equipment and marketing capabilities. Beginning in 2019 we will further leverage the momentum of this grant to begin aiding in at least 3 already committed landowners to increase chestnut production for the years to come. Coupled with financial assistance for the design and development of small scale chestnut processing and storage techniques for meeting local and regional market avenues, we expect to increase landowner participation through the development of a Central PA cooperative while also providing the resources and awareness for a number of other cooperatives throughout the Northeast region. Though much of this is still tentative in this years annual report, it should be noted that describing this production opportunity and the availability of grant support through state and federal programs have already led to increased encouragement and conversations towards enhancing chestnut production in the Northeast.
In 2019, we conducted the second taste testing at the PASA Conference in Lancaster, PA. Over 140 attendees sampled 4 species of chestnuts and ranked Chinese and European as the two favorites equally. Though these taste testings are not statistically or scientifically valid, they did provide great insight into the potential for Chinese cultivars to meet the current American consumers taste preferences which are predominantly from European cultivars. The project team was hoping for a bit higher ranking from the Hybrid and full American genetics, however, the nuts trialed were not from trees selected from any traits related to taste and human consumption, rather simply for their American genetics. The excitement, however, for the fact that this work is being done for the maintenance of American genetics and potential for marketable products was encouraging and gave the project team insight that there may be greater potential for American Hybrids in the market place further down the road with further work developed.
On a similar note, the project team became more focused on prioritizing and planting more Chinese specific cultivars in orchards for future harvestable crops. Spending the time with Greg Miller and his breeding orchards only further highlighted the opportunity for increasing acreage across the region in high quality, high yielding and blight resistant chestnut cultivars and therefore the success of a burgeoning chestnut industry in the northeast. Though Europeans are still planted in norther areas of the region with success, and potential for increased blight resistant breeding with European cultivars and additional hybrid crosses are possible and well worth the effort, our project team become more committed to implementing Chinese and Chinese-American genetics for our specific context based on these interviews and the taste testing events.
One of the major challenges faced during this project was a crop failure during 2019. We had intended to continue refining our taste testing protocols and continuing with refining our scaling into chestnut marketing with the years harvest. However, excessive spring rains during pollination season led to an unharvestable quantity of the crop. We were unable to have enough product to attempt marketing locally or host any further tasting events in the area at local farmers markets to gauge consumer input.
During 2019 we were successfully able to present on our project at the PASA conference, a Northeast Mid-Atlantic Agroforestry webinar and the Association for Temperate Agroforestry Conference in Corvallis, OR. This led to some major successes in terms of networking with others working in developing similar production and marketing systems. After evaluating the conversations from these events and our own specific context, we are looking ahead to hosting a number of networking events in the northeast region to further these conversations and seek opportunities for broader scale coordination participation among potential area partners.
We learned a great deal while implementing the taste testing research portion of this project. There are some major barriers in implementing taste testing at large events, especially when coordinated with partners within larger research institutions. Upon the first event, the project team became aware that we were not able to provide taste testing to attendees with roasted or steamed chestnuts, which is traditionally how they are consumed. Rather participants had to peel chestnuts and consume raw nut meat, which is a great way to tell the differences between species, however, not the best for encouraging participation and well rounded protocols. A large part of roasting and steaming chestnuts is the ease of removing the pellicule, a hairy and very astringent coating on the nut that is always removed before consumption. When not cooked this pellicule is rather difficult to remove, especially on species that have not been selected for loose pellicules. The pellicule greatly changes the taste profile with a bitter astringent quality that will entirely hinder the preference criteria. This is also not very well known to consumers and rather difficult to maintain as a survey protocol.
The other major challenge with the taste testing as described in the research section was the variability between the harvest and storage of the nuts themselves utilized for the events. It is a major hindrance to begin with by comparing a cultivar developed for taste preferences with another that has not been selected for any criteria. It is also another consideration with chestnuts that have been harvested and stored in effective controlled environments to cure properly to reach their highest sweetness. In our case, the European chestnuts were both selected cultivars and harvested and stored in facilities with the end goal of primary consumption. The American, American Hybrid and Chinese are all non selected genetics for consumption and we were sharing facilities with a vegetable processing space and/or research storage environment with different environmental control features. We found that in the initial taste testing, this lead to less then ideal taste testing comparisons with the Europeans. During the second event, however, we were able to control the ripening conditions better and found more expected results. However, the American and American-hybrids were also harvested within green burs, which we found will never fully sweeten then they would if they were harvesting after ripening in the burr. This likely influenced our taste testing preference rankings as well. The goal was to correct this for the 2019 taste testing season, but were not given the opportunity due to regional crop failure.
The education and outreach events were a great success. As mentioned we are looking to continue with more related events through the awarded Specialty Crop Block Grant through 2021.
Initially, we had hoped to be able to present at various other conferences (Fruit and Vegetable Grower meetings, Grain and Malt Symposium, NE Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, etc.) however, our abstracts were note successfully invited. We plan to continue to apply for such conferences as we find these groups to be well suited for participating in or completing the regional chestnut supply chain as their networking and industry insights will aid in the success of any chestnut cooperative developed in the region.
There is certainly much work to do across the entire chestnut supply chain to become a viable industry for the northeast. However, we have found through our research that demand far outweighs supply and a major barrier is in the production stage. This project highlighted the need for increasing resources for the development of regionally adapted (cold tolerance, blight resistance) cultivars and management practices (IPM, harvest machinery). There are great efforts found across the region and in the southeast to restore the American chestnut. The hope with this project was to highlight that by developing an industry approach, the restoration project may find novel approaches for funding continued efforts in restoring this once predominant species across the landscape. However, for a market driven approach, this would require particular breeding focus on consumer (fresh eating) and market (wholesale, U-pick, wildlife trees, etc.) characteristics and preferences. In the meantime, there are opportunities to plant production orchards of Chinese and European genetics, while also planting hybrids to help in the breeding program.
As mentioned before, another area that would greatly benefit the success of regional chestnut industry would be have supply chain technical service providers involvement to aid in bringing in expertise from similar food system supply chain process to the topic. Matching this with potential investment groups or novel public-private partnerships (like Chestnut Growers Inc. in Michigan) will create abundant financial and rural economic development opportunities throughout the greater Northeast region.