Hands-on sustainable agriculture using chestnuts and hazelnuts

Final Report for YENC15-082

Project Type: Youth Educator
Funds awarded in 2015: $2,000.00
Projected End Date: 02/15/2017
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Manager:
Dee Scott
Casey-Westfield CUSD #C-4
Project Co-Managers:
Bryan Bennett
Casey-Westfield High School
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Project Information



The students went on a trip to Forrest Keeling Nursery to observe their operation and were given a tour of their facilities. There the students saw how they started the chestnuts and hazelnuts for production. The students picked up the crop and took them back to our operation site.


The broad goals of this project are to evaluate the potential for chestnut (Castanea mollissima and hybrids) and hazelnut (Corylus avellana and various hybrids) as alternative crops for marginal agricultural lands in east-central Illinois. To do this, we tried to start an experimental orchard that will contain several varieties of both chestnuts and hazelnuts. Primary goals and how they will be addressed are listed in detail below.

Evaluation of cultivars – Most production plantings focus on select genotypes with favorable characteristics such as disease resistance, nut quality or growth. To evaluate potential selections for east-central Illinois, replicated plantings of five cultivars of both chestnut and hazelnut will be planted following production orchard spacing. These plantings will form the foundation of the project as they represent the greatest potential productivity. Cultivar selection will be based on recommendations from growers and on availability of sufficient plant material. These plants will be monitored for growth, seed characteristics, herbivore/pathogen damage and consistency of crop production – all important determinants of suitability for agricultural production. These plantings will assess the agricultural feasibility of chestnut and hazelnut production in east-central Illinois.

Comparison of cultivars and open-pollinated seedlings – Though several growers have selected seedling lines with improved production characteristics, producers still largely focus on clonally propagated cultivars. The potential benefits of utilizing seedlings in an orchard setting include: diversity in herbivore and pathogen resistance, increased pollination efficiency as all individuals are compatible (individuals and cultivars are self-sterile), potentially all leading to more consistent production across the orchard. To assess the performance of seedling-derived plants to cultivars, open pollinated seedlings from various sources will also be planted within the same orchard. These plantings will be evaluated in the same way as the cultivars to assess performance. Outstanding individuals from these initial plantings will be identified for propagation and selective breeding. A direct comparison of select seedlings and established cultivars will allow full determination of the differences in these two approaches. These plants are also useful from an educational/outreach aspect as they illustrate the process of crop improvement.

Performance evaluation for home production – One of the primary barriers to the introduction of alternate crops is a lack of experience with a crop. The introduction of a crop to home gardens serves to increase the visibility of a crop and to potentially increase market interest in a crop. Through the evaluation of plants outlined above, suitable candidates for home gardens can be identified. The evaluation garden proposed here can effectively demonstrate the potential of these crops for home production. Long-term, this planting may serve as the source of plants that can be distributed to interested gardeners, further widening participation in plant evaluation.

Development of educational and outreach programs – A key aspect in establishing a potential alternative or sustainable crop is in educating producers. For this reason, state and federal sustainable agriculture grants require outreach as a central component of all funded projects. By partnering with the agriculture program at a local high school, this project will develop an educational and outreach program that will specifically target potential growers, as well as increase local awareness of nut crops. The development of this program will largely be the responsibility of the undergraduate intern who would be supported by this proposal. High school students will grow chestnut trees from seed, help to evaluate the growth and production characteristics of the varieties, learn about crop selection and development, and develop propagation skills.

Together these goals represent a comprehensive first attempt at evaluating and establishing nut crops as potential alternative crops. The funding requested here provides the proof-of- concept monies necessary to show that our approach is a valuable one.


Growth and performance

At the end of the 2014 growing season, we measured the height and basal diameter for all individuals in the hazelnut orchard. Height and basal diameter did not vary significantly between cultivars with the exception of Precocious, a bush-type hazelnut that was considerably smaller than all other hazelnuts in the orchard. The Precocious plants were seedlings when planted and were much smaller than the other plants included in the study.

One focus of our work this summer was determining differences in the amount and timing of extension growth among cultivars. Little is known about the timing of hazelnut extension growth, nor do we know whether this timing varies between cultivars. Due to the frequency of summer droughts in Illinois, extension growth early or late in the growing season could prove advantageous compared to midsummer extension growth. It also allows us to assess overall performance of the varieties. The Geneva, Precocious, and Redleaf have shown high levels of extension growth, while D208D, P208P, and Slate have shown low levels. This work will continue throughout the summer to assess timing and total extension growth.  The student interns supported by the SARE grant worked heavily in collecting these data.

Winter damage

Through the first winter (2013-2014), we saw high levels of frost damage in both hazelnuts and chestnuts. Winter damage in the hazelnut orchard was significantly lower in 2015 than in 2014. There were no additional deaths in the winter of 2015, and the level of damage throughout the orchard was low. However, we did see differences in frost damage between cultivars consistent with those seen in 2014. In particular, the seedling line Precocious showed almost no overwinter damage, while the clonal lines of Geneva and Slate were more susceptible.

Overwinter damage was generally lower throughout the orchard during the second, much milder winter, with the NY seedling line showing a particularly striking drop in frost damage.

Phenology and Reproduction

Throughout early 2015, we tracked the timing of flowering and leafing out in the hazelnut orchard. Flowering began on March 14 and continued through April 7. This flowering period was considerably later in the year than that found in similar studies conducted in New Jersey, Oregon, and regions of Europe, supporting the need for region-specific investigation of phenological characteristics. Vegetative bud break occurred over a briefer period than flowering, beginning April 4, with more delayed varieties showing bud break by April 10. Cultivars showed differences in flowering times but with enough overlap for pollination to occur between cultivars, as hazelnut trees of the same cultivar cannot pollinate themselves. We have evidence of successful pollination in the orchard this season and intend to follow fruiting through the fall to determine the proportion of female flowers that successfully mature into hazelnuts.

At the end of the 2014 growing season, we counted the number of catkins (clusters of male flowers) produced by all individuals in the hazelnut orchard. Female flowers are indistinguishable from vegetative buds before they open. Counting flower production in the fall allows us to assess winter flower damage. The number of catkins differed significantly among cultivars. Geneva, P208P, and Slate all had several catkins on most trees, while most other lines in the orchard had few or none.


Project Coordinator. Scott Meiners, PhD – Professor, Biological Sciences, Eastern Illinois University. Dr. Meiners’ academic training is in ecology with an emphasis on factors that regulate the regeneration of woody plants. The project proposed here expands those research skills into an area of long personal interest. He has trained over 15 MS students, has successfully completed multiple state and federal grant projects, and is an expert in statistical data analysis. Dr. Meiners will oversee the collection of data, supervision of graduate students and dissemination of information from this project.

Major Participant. Dee Scott – Superintendent, Casey-Westfield School District. By facilitating the involvement of the High School Agriculture and Environmental Science programs, she has fostered the collaboration between Eastern Illinois University and Casey-Westfield High School. The Casey-Westfield School District has provided the land on which the initial trial orchard has been planted and regularly provides assistance in maintaining the site. As the trial orchard matures, there will be many more opportunities for their high school students and they will take a leadership role in the outreach efforts of this project.

Individual Collaborators

Bryan Bennett, Farmer, Martinsville, IL and FFA coordinator and Agriculture teacher, Casey, IL


The winters have been very hard on our crop of chestnut and hazelnut trees. Several of the trees did not live through the winter. After digging up the dead tree,s upon examination of the roots, they did not look healthy and thus could not provide for the plant to survive the winter. If the trees become established they may be able to make a profit for the producer. If the trees do produce a crop, the operator will need to be smart on how they market the products to the consumer.

The main goal we were trying to teach the youth was growing crops without using a high dollar amount of fertilizers. The use of fertilizers can make the plants grow much faster, but at a higher cost of production. The youth audience we were trying to reach was high school age students. We had a grad student come and talk to some of the biological science classes about the project and what we were trying to accomplish.  


We learned that if you can establish the orchard and protect it from the winter elements, a producer might be able to make a sustainable production operation. We worked with the students to help make them more environmentally conscious. We all need to work together to reduce our carbon footprint. Our society is changing on what they are demanding from our producers, they are wanting to be healthier. Our farmers will adapt their operations to stay profitable and meet the demands of our consumers. We knew it would be a tough project and we would lose several of our trees, but we have worked hard and several of the trees are still alive and we anxiously wait for them to produce a quality crop for us.


We made some brochures to inform the public about our project.  A graduate student who worked on the hazelnuts presented on sustainable agriculture and chestnuts/hazelnuts to three sections of biology at Casey-Westfield High School reaching approximately 75 students (3 sections/ 25 students in each).

An article covering the orchard by the Journal Gazette/ Times-Courier is attached.


Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.