Proof of Concept – Sustainable Chestnut Production in Northeast Lower Michigan

Project Overview

FNC17-1081
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

Commodities

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

Practices

  • 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

    Summary:

    Problem Addressed:

    (1) Farming in many ares of the Midwest is of low sustainability and our farm region of Northeast Lower Michigan provides a case in point.  Low Profitability: Yields of corn and soybeans averaged 100 bu/acre and 29 bu/acre respectively during the past 10 years in Presque Isle County, MI (USDA, NASS). Cattle ranching  is threaten by Bovine Tuberculosis.  High Environmental impact: Row cropping in Presque Isle County has more environmental impact per bushel produced than other areas in the Midwest because of relatively high inputs and relative isolation from other farm communities.  Farming has not supported 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%.

    (2) Domestically grown chestnuts are in high demand, but production is limited in the Midwest region, in part, by not knowing where they can be grown – hardiness of currently grown varieties is zone 6 or greater.  An article published by Michigan State University Agrobioresearch highlights this problem (see story

    (3) Even if chestnuts grow well in Presque Isle County and other places in the North Central region, many local farmers 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.

    Research Approach:

    (1) Determine if cold hardy and traditional cultivars of Japaneses/European hybrid grafted chestnuts can be grown in Northeast Michigan, a nontraditional area for fruit and nut production, by comparing growth and survival of cold hardy varieties to traditional varieties.  (2) Determine if forage crops can be harvested between rows of chestnut trees such that the field can still be productive during orchard establishment years.

    Research Conclusions:

    During fall 2017, 442 Japanese/European hybrid grafted chestnut trees consisting of 6 different cultivars were planted.  Trees from all varieties survived and grew well.  Survival from fall 2017 to fall 2018 was 99%, terminal growth averaged 13 inches, and percent change in diameter 24 inches from the ground averaged 60%.  About 25 lbs of chestnuts were harvested from the trees during year 1. 

    A forage crop of clover and orchard grass was established and harvested between the rows of establishing chestnut trees.  The total acreage of the field with chestnut trees was about 7 acres and about 3.5 acres could be hayed.  The total time to hay the field with chestnuts was about 25% longer than a field without chestnuts that was about 3.0 acres. Forage quality of the grass/clover hay was relatively high.  Haying will continue in future years because it provides forage for our goats and oxen and accomplishes an important orchard maintenance task – mowing.

    A slide show with many pictures highlighting the project can be accessed by clicking here. A blog that continues to highlight the project and can be accessed by clicking here.

    Farmer Adoption Actions:

    A field day was hosted during September 2018 with about 20 local farmers attending. Several farmers within a few miles are considering planting a chestnut crop in future years. We are planning to expand our acreage.  However, we strongly warn that our success is likely related to our farm’s microclimate, which was studied extensively prior to starting this project. Although we are much further north and east than any other orchard in Michigan or the Midwest, our farm sits on the highest ridge in Presque Isle County about 5 miles from Lake Huron.  Temperature monitoring data suggest our farm can be 10-15 degrees F warmer on the coldest winter nights than lower elevation farmland a few miles further inland.  Information about our temperature monitoring can be found by clicking here.  Site selection will be extremely important for those considering to plant chestnuts in nontraditional regions.  Finding land at high elevation that is well drained will be critical. However, within 5 miles of our farm, we estimate that over 1,000 acres of tillable land could sit in this micro-climate, so the potential for future expansion of chestnut orchards in our community is significant.

    A story about how and why our orchard received a ‘5-star award’ can be found by clicking here.

    Project objectives:

    Objectives

    (1) Determine if cold hardy and traditional cultivars of Japaneses/European hybrid grafted chestnuts can be grown in Northeast Michigan, a nontraditional area for fruit and nut production, by comparing growth and survival of cold hardy varieties to traditional varieties. 

    (2) Determine if forage crops can be harvested between rows of chestnut trees such that the field can still be productive during orchard establishment years.

    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.