Hands-on sustainable agriculture using chestnuts and hazelnuts

Project Overview

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

Annual Reports


  • Nuts: chestnuts, hazelnuts


  • Education and Training: youth education
  • Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities

    Proposal abstract:

    Project Abstract
    This project will partner Casey-Westfield’s agriculture program with an existing sustainable agriculture project run through Eastern Illinois University (EIU).  This project focuses on evaluating chestnuts and hazelnuts as alternative sustainable crops in the area.  Staff and students from EIU will train CW students in basic principles of sustainable agriculture, details of nut production, and orchard maintenance through a series of presentations. Students will work in the evaluation orchard and assist EIU in collection of data and maintenance of the plants.  A regional field day will also be hosted to reach a broader audience.

    Detailed Project Plan and Timeline
    The centerpiece of this project is a unique partnership between the Casey-Westfield School District (CWSD) and a research group in the Department of Biological Sciences at Eastern Illinois University (EIU).  With initial funding from EIU, a trial orchard was set up on property owned by CWSD to evaluate the performance of various varieties of chestnuts and hazelnuts.  These two species were selected because of their potential for sustainable production in the region.  As woody crops, these species have the benefit of being able to be grown in erodible areas that may otherwise be unsuitable for row crop agriculture, or lead to soil loss and water quality impairment.

    The goal of this orchard is to compare varieties side-by-side to determine which varieties are best suited to production in the lower Midwest.  This project’s goals are two-fold -- to scientifically evaluate chestnut and hazelnut varieties to provide recommendations to potential growers, and to educate students and potential growers about the economic and environmental benefits of these two crops.  Now that the orchard is established, we have the ability to start using this resource educationally.

    The project educates students through three primary activities, each with a different audience and projected impact. 
    1. Agriculture students in the Junior-Senior High will have a series of workshops/lessons intended to introduce sustainable agriculture and orchard management.  This will address an intermediately-sized group multiple times throughout the year. 

    2. We will host a field day for regional agriculture programs to come and tour the orchard and hear a series of short presentations on the same general topics.  This is designed to reach a larger audience, but will entail much less detail. 

    3. Lastly, this project will support two high school students to work in the orchard over the summer to work with EIU researchers, manage the orchard and develop a much greater understanding of the science behind evaluating and developing new crops.  Below we will describe each primary activity and its intended impacts on student education.

    The primary learning activity will be the development and presentation of a series of lectures/workshops on sustainable agriculture, using woody agriculture as a focal system.  These educational events will be spread throughout the academic year to present a continuous theme across the curriculum.  Topics to be covered will include:  Sustainable agriculture and its goals, Orchard establishment and management, Chestnut and hazelnut biology and production, Crop development and assessment, and woody plant propagation.  Presentations will be a combination of traditional lectures to present information with discussions and/or hands-on activities to reinforce key themes.  When applicable, students will apply this knowledge in the trial orchard.  While most themes will be presented by EIU staff, we will also bring in a certified arborist and an orchard owner for more specific training and additional perspectives.  This educational activity will present a broad and comprehensive view with the specific goals of developing not only a knowledge base, but also a skill set.

    Based on student interest and engagement during the academic year, two students will be selected to work closely with the EIU group as research interns over the summer.  These students will be responsible for normal orchard maintenance activities to more fully develop the skills learned in the classroom workshops.  More importantly, these students will be directly involved in the research activities of EIU to evaluate the varieties of chestnuts and hazelnuts for local production.  They will assist with growth measurements, assessment of insect damage and plant stress measurements.  The focus of this work is to specifically introduce the student interns to the rigors of agricultural research and the type of work needed to evaluate and develop crops.  These two students will be paid minimum wage to minimize the financial burdens that may prevent promising students from participating.

    The largest scale educational activity will be a regional field day hosted at the orchard site.  During this field day, groups will be divided up and rotated through a series of activities that repeat many of the main themes from the CWSD classroom workshops.  These presentations will be partly run by EIU staff, but also by CWSD students.  Having the students lead groups will reinforce the educational themes presented during the academic year and provide the students with a feeling of ownership in the project.  This educational activity will supplement agricultural education in other districts and will hopefully serve to generate additional interest in chestnut/hazelnut production.

    Resources Used
    The primary resource for this project will be the research group at Eastern Illinois University.  This group is headed by Dr. Scott Meiners, who was responsible for setting up the trial orchard at CWSD and is leading the evaluation work on chestnuts and hazelnuts.  The other primary participant from EIU will be Sharon Dubosky, a Master’s student who’s thesis research focuses on chestnuts and hazelnuts.  These two will be responsible for generating much of the material to be presented in the workshops and will lead the hands-on exercises.  As part of their continuing work, they are developing outreach materials (print and online) that can be distributed to classes, field day participants, or other interested parties.  They will also help plan and present the field days at the trial orchard.  The EIU group will work closely with the agriculture teacher at CWSD, Bryan Bennett.  Mr. Bennett will be responsible for organizing orchard field work and conducting pre- and post-assessments for the project.  He will also select and oversee the summer interns that work with the EIU group.  CWSD also has a good greenhouse facility for plant propagation exercises.

    This expertise will be supplemented with two external organizations.  One workshop will focus on woody plant maintenance and management.  For this presentation, we will bring in a certified arborist to work with the agriculture students.  Similarly, we will bring in an orchard owner (either chestnut or hazelnut, depending on availability) to present to the students the issues of producing non-traditional crops.  Finally, the students will visit a Forrest Keeling Nursery, a commercial nursery that produces several woody crop plants (chestnuts, pecans, elderberries, and paw paws).  This field trip will scale up the woody plant propagation workshop to a commercial level. 

    In the spring, we will host a regional field day on the trial orchard site to provide access to a broader audience in the area.  This day will be advertised through the Regional Office of Education, which puts out our regular newsletters to several counties.  We can also use this venue to provide small articles to the region’s agriculture programs.  The regional field day will present the core ideas of the program in a short format.  These will include: 1) the basics of sustainable agriculture and benefits of woody cultivation in erodible soils, 2) chestnut and hazelnut biology (with tour of orchard), 3) tree care including the basics of pruning, 4) development of new crops and how to select superior varieties, and 5) uses and market potential of sustainably produced crops.  These themes will be presented both by the EIU partners as well as students from the CW agriculture programs to provide reinforcement of concepts.  A second field day will also be held specifically for regional high school agriculture teachers to introduce them to this project and build additional partnerships.

    Written outreach materials are being developed by EIU and will ultimately be produced online.  These will be updated with feedback from the first year of this program.  The goal of the trial orchard is to evaluate varieties based on their production characteristics, so this material will also be disseminated via handouts and internet sources so that potential producers can make informed decisions on plant selection.  The scientific aspects of the work will be presented in local and regional specialist meetings as well as published in scientific outlets.  The CW school district has a strong relationship with local newspapers and will work to get at least one article published during the period of funding. 

    Student and Community Impact
    This project aims to increase awareness of and knowledge/skills in sustainable agriculture, specifically in the production of woody plant crops.  CWSD students’ learning will be assessed through a pre- and post-test survey that will determine student attitudes towards sustainable agriculture, their knowledge of the issues involved, and how knowledgeable they feel about aspects of sustainable agriculture and woody plant culture.  We can also use the second survey to determine what content areas need improvement or additional areas the students would like to see covered. 

    To assess the effectiveness of the field day, a similar, but shorter survey can be done before and after the field day for student participants.  We will also assess the effectiveness of the field day through a participant evaluation for the leaders of each school group to improve its presentation and content.  To determine the impact of the field day, we will also keep track of the total number of students that participate as well as the number and geographic spread of the school districts that participate.   As the EIU group is interested in developing multiple partnerships, an additional assessment of impact will be the number of districts that express interest in developing similar programs.

    Impacts on the student interns will be assessed through regular discussions of scientific and agricultural issues.  Student interns will also be asked to write a reflective statement at the end of their internship to evaluate their academic and skill growth during the program.  Ultimately, we are interesting in developing a long-standing program, so we are focused on determining how to improve all portions of the program for future 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.