Growing Chestnuts in the Northeast US: a Value Chain Perspective

Russell Wallack of Breadtree Farm in Johnsonville, NY, who did the initial planting for Chestnut orchard in 2018. Photo by Mark Phillips
Keegan Schelling at Shaker Creek Farm in Stephentown, New York, inspecting a three year old Chestnut. Photo by Mark Phillips

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.

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

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