Proof of Concept – Sustainable Chestnut Production in Northeast Lower Michigan

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2017: $10,255.00
Projected End Date: 01/30/2019
Grant Recipient: Ox Heights
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Abby Johnson
Ox Heights


  • Agronomic: grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Nuts: chestnuts


  • Animal Production: feed/forage
  • Crop Production: irrigation, no-till
  • Education and Training: demonstration, on-farm/ranch research
  • Farm Business Management: feasibility study
  • Production Systems: general crop production
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, new business opportunities

    Proposal summary:


    Our proposal will address three problems of regional and local importance.
    (1) Despite high demand for chestnuts in North America, current chestnut production is highly limited in the Midwest region by the hardiness of currently grown varieties (zone 6 or greater). An article published by Michigan State University Agrobioresearch this Fall highlights this problem ( This article is a call for new chestnut growers in new regions. This call occurs at a time when all other horticultural crops are experiencing stagnant growth.
    (2) Cash crop production in many places in the North Central region is of low sustainability. Our region of Northeast Lower Michigan provides a case in point. Economics: Yields of corn and soybeans averaged 100 bu/acre and 29 bu/acre respectively during the past 10 years in Presque Isle County (USDA, NASS). Cattle ranching (the foundation of Brege Farms) is threatened by Bovine Tuberculosis. Environmental impact: Row cropping in Presque Isle County has more environmental impact per bushel produced than other areas in the Midwest (James DeDecker, MSU Extension Presque Isle Co.) because of relatively high inputs and relative isolation from other farm communities. Community growth: The population of Presque Isle County has been stagnant since 1960 at ~13,000. Per capita income in the county is only $22,000, the poverty rate 13%, and the unemployment rate third highest in Michigan at 10%.  (3) Even if chestnuts do grow well in Presque Isle County and other places in the North Central region, many local farmers like us can’t afford to take land out of production for 5 years before getting a return on investment. For existing family farmers to convert to a specialty crop like chestnuts, they need to earn money while the chestnut orchard is developing.


    Solutions to problems 1 and 2: In a marginal row crop region in the North Central region (Presque Isle County, Michigan), we will contrast the survival, growth, and nut production of three varieties of Japanese/European grafted chestnuts that are advertised as hardy to -30o F (Zone 4b) and have never been tested in the North Central region (the ‘Mar series’; Maraval, Marigoule, Marsol; to the proven varieties of Japanese/European grafted chestnuts that are only hardy to -20o F (Zone 6B; Colossal and Bouche de Betizac). Chestnut production could be highly sustainable throughout much of the North Central region if nut production from the Mar series is high. For example, once established, chestnut orchards in Michigan can (1) yield profits between $4,000 and $6,000/acre/year, (2) require relatively low inputs compared to row crops, and (3) stabilize/build soils.

    Solution to problem 3: To provide a source of revenue for local farmers during the years the orchard is establishing, we will determine if a forage crop can be planted and harvested between the rows of chestnuts. Overall caveat: An issue with our project is that chestnut trees take more than two years to mature, so we anticipate the scope of this project to extend beyond this SARE proposal. However, during this two year project, we will evaluate metrics associated with orchard establishment that will either support or reject our conceptual model. These metrics include cost, survival, and growth and are outlined in the timeline below. We will also be able to determine the cost and yield associated with forage production between the rows of chestnut trees.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    1. Improve sustainable chestnut production in Northeast Lower Michigan by testing chestnut varieties and cultivation of forage crops.
    2. Maximize environmental benefits by evaluating the impact on soils by collecting soil samples before and after chestnut orchard establishment.
    3. Anticipate the profitability of chestnut production in Presque Isle County by conducting an economic analysis of the costs associated with establishing and maintaining an orchard, and assessing the potential to grow crops between orchard rows.
    4. Evaluate the changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills, and aspirations of field day participants through a post-session evaluation.
    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.