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Bountiful chestnut crop comes just in time for holidays

John L. Russell
Special to the Detroit News

Traverse City — A combination of good weather and maturing trees have produced a record Michigan chestnut harvest this year, just in time for holiday celebrations.

With more than 200,000 pounds harvested this fall, Michigan’s yield is double last year’s crop.

Michigan leads the nation in both the number of chestnut growers and trees, with production covering about 1,200 acres, according to Roger Blackwell of Chestnut Growers Inc., a cooperative that works with 32 growers in Michigan. A Michigan State University research center in Clarksville processes the nuts. The cooperative declined to put a value on the crop.

“We’ve been active since 2002 in tracking numbers, (2016) was a huge year,” Blackwell said.

That’s especially good news this time of year when the humble chestnut is most popular, with the traditional roasting of them over an open fire. The bumper crop also means good cheer for fans of the deep brown nut, who will find them at cheaper prices.

“The cost of chestnuts to consumers will vary, but overall they will drop some this year — we had three times the crop in 2016, and our suppliers are really happy that they will be able to sell Michigan chestnuts through the end of the year,” Blackwell said.

Chestnut species, which are actually a fruit, are found around the world on two completely unrelated trees. One variety, Castanea, is edible and includes American, Chinese, Japanese and European chestnuts. The other, Aesculus, produces inedible nuts, such as horse chestnuts and buckeyes, which are toxic.

“We use the term ‘sweet edible chestnuts’ to describe our orchard-grown nuts,” said Erin Lizotte, a MSU extension agent. “Our Michigan nuts are Japanese-European cultivars, they are gluten-free, very low in fat content and taste delicious.”

Pollination of the trees occurs in July, with the developed nuts encased in a green burr of spines; they are harvested in October. Harvesting is done either by a machine that sweeps the orchard floor for dropped nuts, which are mature and protected by their shells, vacuuming them up, or by picking them by hand. The harvest is then shipped to a processing facility where they are kept cool until the nut is removed from the shell and packaged.

They’re healthy, too. The fruit has carbohydrate contents equal to rice and wheat and contains vitamin C and fat content below 5 percent, compared to hazelnut fat content at 62 percent and pecans at 71 percent.

Marty Lagina, a grower on the Old Mission Peninsula near Traverse City, owns Croft Fresh Chestnuts.

“It’s a wonderful crop,” Lagina said, “ but the cost of harvesting the nuts is high, and it’s difficult to make a profit.”

He planted 700 trees 20 years ago and finds the chestnut to be delicious and used in all sorts of food. Roasting the nuts is a yearly event for guests of his winery, Mari Vineyards, also on the Old Mission Peninsula.

Blackwell said the cultivar ‘Colossal’ chestnut begins to bear a good harvest in five years, and a 15-year-old tree can produce 75 pounds of nuts each, up to 7,000 pound per acre, yielding a profit margin of 9 percent to 11 percent.

While Michigan leads the 12 states that grow chestnuts, the U. S. production amounts to less that 1 percent of the total world production, according to the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service.

John L. Russell is a writer and photojournalist from Traverse City.