Growing Chestnuts in the Northeast US: a Value Chain Perspective

Mark Phillips
Feb 13 · 8 min read

Chestnuts are all the rage in the Agroforestry community in the Northeast United States. Regenerative agriculture advocates like Ethan Roland-Soloviev are outspoken about their economic potential in the region, and designers and educators such as Lisa Depiano in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts are collaboratively exploring their carbon sequestration capacity in silvopasture systems. Russell Wallack, at Terra Genesis International, recently established the initial chestnut orchard planting at Breadtree Farms as a part of a larger vision to support a chestnut industry in the Northeast, and beginning farmers like Ben and Kathryn Hart of Back the Lane Farm planted several thousand hybrid varieties (along with hazelnuts) on land in Stephentown, New York in Spring 2017.

Russell Wallack of Breadtree Farm in Johnsonville, NY, who did the initial planting for Chestnut orchard in 2018. Photo by Mark Phillips

The list of other agroforestry and chestnut advocates, both in the Northeast and beyond, extends well beyond just these few examples. Since publishing this story on nut industry development in the Northeast in 2017, I see more and more adoption and enthusiasm for chestnut and multi-species agroforestry systems, throughout the region and nationally. Science continues to affirm the many ecosystem benefits of agroforestry that indigenous peoples have practiced for centuries through traditional ecological knowledge, and nurseries in adjacent regions such as the Finger Lakes and Midwest report selling out of commercial chestnuts every season. Rightfully so, agroforestry is receiving the interest it deserves, and Chestnuts are a key crop for advancing the cause.

Nonetheless, a lot of excitement for chestnuts centers around agricultural production alone, which is the very front end of an entire supply chain that needs to be developed if individual growers are to operate viable businesses in the long term. Those planting chestnuts in the Northeast today are early adopters who bear outsized risk in creating farm systems whose success is not guaranteed (particularly in the context of climate change intensification). If we are to maximize the success of chestnuts (and other specialty crops in our region), the industry will succeed to the extent that we simultaneously develop and invest in the chestnut value chain as a whole.

One tangible proof of concept for this work is the extraordinary example of GrowNYC’s regional grains project, Grow NYC Grains. Through the leadership of June Russell, the project is a helpful precedent for the multidimensional (and multi-stakeholder) process of re-developing an agricultural industry once vibrant in the Northeast. Working across the food system with plant breeders, farmers, millers, bakers, brewers, distillers, and consumers, Russell has spent more than a decade helping to coordinate a whole suite of activities necessary for bringing regional grains back to the Hudson Valley and larger New York State region.

Keegan Schelling at Shaker Creek Farm in Stephentown, New York, inspecting a three year old Chestnut. Photo by Mark Phillips

I had the opportunity to interview Russell for Hudson River Flows, a food system story telling project focused on the Hudson Valley’s regenerative food economy, and I think her project is a highly valuable example for informing the work of chestnut and other specialty crop development efforts.

Certainly, annual grains are different from perennial tree crops in a variety of ways: they are annuals, not perennials, and so the learning cycle for new adopters is relatively shorter than for chestnuts (which might take 12 to 15 years to produce consistently). Longer yield times for chestnuts can make the economics trickier to manage, requiring shorter-term cash flow to manage operating expenses until trees begin to generate revenue.

In the context of the GrowNYC project, too, grains serve primarily as an ingredient for baking, which have had implications for processing (milling) and baking further up the supply chain. Because of this, GrowNYC invested a considerable amount of time and resources into supporting millers to process grains effectively, and educating bakers to bake with locally milled flour — tasks entirely distinct from working with farmers but equally important to the creation of viable markets in the long term.

The point here is that Grow NYC Grains serves as a useful case study in coordinating industry development with stakeholders across the supply chain, which is a direction we can look to in developing tree-crop based food systems in the Northeast and North America more broadly.

For the sake of context, here is an excerpt from the full interview with June Russell, talking about the many, complementary challenges that needed to be addressed in tandem for regional grain development:

The primary challenge has been the availability of appropriate varieties and then the knowledge base required for working with them. We lost many generations of know-how going back 100 years when the last of those diversified grains were being grown in the Northeast, and largely that was for animal feed — farmers were not primarily harvesting for the food-grade market.

And then even with the right genetics and production practices in place, we still needed to build up infrastructure for post-harvest handling. Nobody had an oat roller — that’s the second aspect of this: the equipment necessary for grain production and processing. Of all that equipment and infrastructure a lot has been developed for commodity production, and at a very large scale. Combines, for example, are geared towards the flat Midwest landscape, whereas here in the Northeast we have smaller acreage that’s hilly, rolling, and rocky. We haven’t seen new equipment be developed yet, but we’ve seen a lot of old equipment come out of barns and be put back into use. Machines from the ’40s and ‘50s.

And then there’s the need for facilities that can handle the project as well. Older mills in the region were not prepared to work with new farmers. One farmer who grew wheat for the first time was rejected from sale to a local mill because his grains did not meet quality standards. There’s a whole list of specifications you need to meet if you’re going to sell into a food-grade market, made all the more difficult by growing conditions in the Northeast — more wet and humid — which puts disease pressure on grains as well.

June Russell of Grow NYC Grains. Read the complete interview here.

The excerpt above highlights just a few of the key components that have been necessary for revitalizing regional grains: appropriate genetics and production practices; infrastructure for processing; and effective post-harvest handling for bringing an acceptable product to market.

If we shift our thinking to Chestnuts in the Northeast US, the story is not dissimilar. Simultaneous to getting trees planted in the ground, we need folks building knowledge systems and infrastructure across the supply chain (not to mention demand from regional buyers). And, as GrowNYC Grains has demonstrated, these activities can be coordinated together based on shared values and a common belief in the extraordinary story of returning chestnuts to our food system.

Here, then, are just a few ideas for what we can do as we plant Chestnuts in the ground and wait for them to yield. Please feel free to add to the list, voice caveats, or offer more detail in the comments below.

Breeding and Crop Research: Who is managing germplasm and breeding efforts to maximize the long-term viability of chestnuts in our region? What role can university research and extension play in developing out cultivars that can handle increasing weather extremes while meeting the needs of consumers and industry?

Nursery Stock: Where can existing nurseries be expanded, and what is the role that new nurseries can play in developing a regional chestnut industry (while providing other, viable agroforestry species such as hazelnut, currants, elderberry, etc)?

Processing, Aggregation, and Distribution: What are the best ways to process and distribute nuts, and where might there be opportunities for cooperative development and aggregation? The New York Tree Crops Alliance has been hard at work developing a cooperative model for their regional cohort of producers — this project is an important point of reference for future coop development efforts.

Investment and Business Planning: What are the costs of chestnut establishment across various scenarios (orchards, alley cropping, etc), and where can technical assistance providers, private consultants, and outside investors play a role in supporting new and existing farm development? Propagate Ventures is actively working on some of these questions, with a particular interest in chestnut development.

Real Market Information: Who will buy chestnuts in the region, and what are the best opportunities for value-added processing? This is not an abstract question: Literally, who will buy chestnuts, and at what price? Chestnuts are often cited as having a huge global market, but in the context of the Northeast US, what specific routes to market make the most sense (U Pick vs. wholesale distribution vs. ingredients) and what are the true prices available for chestnut growers? The size of the global market for Chestnuts does not necessarily reflect the price that buyers are willing to pay in this region.

Consumer Education: Chestnuts were once widespread in our food system before the American chestnut blight effectively eliminated the tree from the Eastern seaboard. How were Chestnuts traditionally consumed as a staple food, and what roll can the culinary world play in generating excitement around this tree crop?

Policy at Local, Regional, and Federal Levels: What are the specific policy opportunities for advancing Agroforestry systems? At the state level, New York passed legislation for Farmland Protection — how can such policies more explicitly recognize the benefits of agroforestry systems and provide policy incentives to farmers and conservation districts to plant tree crops?

Land Access: Chestnuts can take more than ten years to start yielding. What innovative lease arrangements do we need to advance to make agroforestry commercially viable, particularly for young and beginning farmers? (See Savannah Institute for resources here).

Social Justice and Food Sovereignty: Hand in hand with land access, how can we ensure that people of color, indigenous people, and other marginalized groups have equitable access to agroforestry and other resilient farming systems? What role can value chains play to increase access in the region for such populations? To put it another way, how can agroforestry support farm viability for existing farm operations managed by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities?

An example of a food value chain, via the Wallace Center

Grow NYC Grains is certainly not the only example of value chain coordination. The Wallace Center at Winrock International has actively supported value chain coordination projects since 2016, and the Appalachian Sustainable Development Center has supported value chain development for herb hubs and other agroforestry projects.

Of course, we can also look to the example of industry development internationally (see list of resources here). More recently, the Savannah Institute is working on impact investment reports for nut crops, with a chestnut specific report on the midwest industry’s development forthcoming.

The key takeaway I am advocating for here is that if we want to support the long term development of chestnuts in the northeast (or other specialty crops, elsewhere) we need to be thinking systemically and assessing where investment in research, technical assistance, policy, and other key infrastructure makes the most sense — and see this as integral to agricultural viability itself. In the context of this moment on Earth, working together across industry and sectors to support climate change resilience in the food system is probably one of the most important things we can do to ensure food security and access for the future. Now is the time!

Chestnut seedlings in the ground at Back the Lane Farm in New York. What needs to happen in the next 10 years to ensure that farms like these are viable into the future?

Thanks for reading! Please comment below with questions or caveats. I am currently seeking partnerships for grant applications to research value chain development for tree crops in the Northeast. Send me a line if interested: earthculturesnortheast@gmail.com

Mark Phillips

Written by

Writer, Educator, and Consultant working in Food, Fermentation, and Regenerative Agriculture. See about.me/MarkjPHL for writing and affiliations.

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