Michigan farmers are working overtime to keep up with the demand of an old holiday favorite, roasted over an open fire.
The state leads the nation in the number of chestnut trees and farms, and due to advances in horticulture, better marketing and production and new uses for the fruit — yes, chestnuts are a fruit — demand continues to increase, industry experts say.
Found in everything from chestnut flour — which is gluten-free — to craft beers, Michigan produces about 100,000 pounds of the yuletide favorite.
"I predict in the next five years we'll bring to market 250,000 pounds of chestnuts," said Roger Blackwell, president of Chestnut Growers Inc., a cooperative of more than 30 growers throughout the state. In 10 years, 500,000 pounds, Blackwell estimated.
Michigan's production is just a blip in the global market of about 2 million tons produced worldwide. China accounts for about 1.7 million tons. But the demand for domestic chestnuts — particularly chestnuts grown in Michigan — continues to grow, Blackwell said.
"The markets I've been supplying used to buy Italian and now they buy Michigan-grown chestnuts until I run out," Blackwell said. "We just have consumers that really love our chestnuts and they are just buying out the stores."
Chestnuts can go for about $2 per pound wholesale and three times that at the retail level. Michigan chestnuts are sweeter than other varieties, Blackwell said. And they're starchy, not oily, at about 55 percent water. The taste has been defined as mildly sweet and earthy, like a mashed potato and sometimes, with hints of vanilla.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the trees numbered more than 31/2 billion and made up about a quarter of the forest in states such as Pennsylvania. But the trees were brought down by a fungal blight that killed the trees by the billions by the 1930s, according to the Michigan State University Extension offices.
But in the 1980s farmers started planting chestnut saplings mostly brought in from China, said Roger Blackwell, president of Chestnut Growers Inc., a cooperative of more than 30 growers throughout the state. The growers worked with MSU and made advances in the field coming up with cultivars that could bring in good yields yet make it through Michigan's tough winters.
"People started with what was available," said Dennis Fulbright, a professor of plants, soils and microbial sciences at Michigan State. Fulbright has been working with growers and researching chestnut trees for decades. "We had to hunt around."
Researchers and farmers discovered a cultivar frequently grown in Spain that grew well in Michigan. The trees are blight resistant and offer good yields.
"Our best cultivars now are European crossed with a Japanese. It's the same kind you'll find in Spain or France or Portugal."
Call it version 2.0 for the domestic chestnut.
But people still like them roasted over an open fire. The Vince and Joe's Gourmet Market, with two locations in Macomb County, roast the chestnuts outside the store this time of year on the weekends for their customers. It's a crowd favorite and helps put people in the Christmas mood, said Paco Alvarez, an assistant produce manager at the Clinton Township store.
"We let them try the samples," Alvarez said. "It's been very busy."
The Henry Ford is also a good customer of the cooperative. Visitors to the Holiday Night event at Greenfield Village enjoy the Michigan-grown chestnuts.
Most state chestnut farms are about 5 acres. But farmers have been reaching out planting 20-acre, 70-acre and even 100-acre farms. Seeing the improvements and the progression of the crop throughout the state has been rewarding, Fulbright said.
"It's a close relationship," he said, referring to MSU and the growers. "There has basically been millions of dollars generated by the growers with our help. And that's good."