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The Farm Log for the Year 2008

This is our third year of farming chestnuts. The knowledge gained over the past few years is allowing us to take better care of the trees and a better understanding of what chestnut consumers want. One of our goals this year is to perform research in the area of consumer perferences. Last year's initial casual research in consumer preferences provided some interesting information. The goal of this research is to deliver the kind of chestnuts people love to eat.

Winter 2008

This year we are adding about 2 acres of new trees and for the fist time we are starting about 200 new seedlings from seed. If you too are interested in starting your own chestnut trees then Dr. Sandra L. Anagnostakis' "Starting Chestnuts from Seed" is a must read. Our initial plantings from 2006 resulted in many of the trees dying for assorted reasons. With the help of Michigan State University we found many of the trees died because of a fungus causing root rot. Since then we have found a chestnut variety of chestnut trees that are not effected by the root rot fungus. When these seedlings are a year old we will graft them with some of the top performing trees in our orchard.

Late Winter 2008

The weather just broke from cold with day time highs in the mid to upper 30's. Now the day time highs are in the mid to upper 40's. This is not warm enough to wake the trees up from their winter snooze. The mid 40's is warm enough to pick up on some of the outside projects like fixing drains and maintenance on equipment.

Late winter is when chestnut growers exchange scion wood. There are only a few seedlings on the farm so there is little need for scion wood. There are 5 Precoce Migoule seedlings that need to be grafted with scion wood so the trees are genetically pure Precoce Migioule chestnuts. Another grower is sending some Precoce Migoule scion wood. The grower is reliable and respected in the chestnut grower community so we know we are getting the proper wood for grafting. In return we will send them cuttings from an unnamed European X Japanese hybrid chestnut.

The chestnut seeds we stratified last fall are starting to germinate. At this point we are getting less than 50% germination. Not all the seeds were covered properly with soil when the seeds were put to bed. Mold is a major problem. Next time precautionary steps we be taken to try to limit the mold problem. An expert will be consulted to help put a process in place to control the mold.

Visiting the Un-kept Chestnut Orchard We came across a local chestnut orchard a few miles from our own. The owner was someone we had known outside of chestnuts but did not know they grew chestnuts. The orchard is small consisting of about 11 trees. The trees are all about 10 years old. The property owner bought the trees from Burnt Ridge Nursery and planted the trees not knowing anything about growing chestnuts. We can use this orchard as an example of how to fix up chestnut trees to get the most out of them.

Lets identify some of the issues. The spacing of the trees is causing the trees to grow into each other. The experts tell us that chestnut trees require unobstructed sunlight on the nut bearing branches. The property owner tells us that the trees have not been producing as advertised. The most amount of nuts harvested has been about 200 pounds. This is less than 20 lbs per tree. One of the trees has never produced any nuts. Another tree produces great tasting sweet chestnuts but the nuts are small. This might be a Layeroka chestnut tree that provides nuts but the nuts are on the small size. The trees have never been fertilized. Sucker growth has not been controlled.

Lets see if we can set some goals. First, with 10 year old chestnut trees we would expect at least 25 lbs of nuts per tree each year. So far only one year has provided the 200 lbs of nuts. The tree that has never produced will be grafted to a known cultivar of superior quality and size chestnuts. The orchard will be properly fertilized this year. The trees will have at least 18" of new growth on the producing branches. All shaded branches will be removed. Trees growing upright will be top cut to create a more sprawling structure. The interior of the chestnut trees will be opened to sunlight. Finally, each tree will be limited to 15' of vertical canopy. This makes sure none of the surrounding trees will be shaded by any neighboring trees. Over the next 3 years we should be able to get production up to 25 lbs of nuts per tree. Then by the 6th year of good orchard management we want production up to 30 pounds per tree. The trees will be 16 years old then. By the time the trees reach their 20th fall season we want the trees producing 35 pounds of chestnuts per tree. Lets follow the process of getting this orchard into a top producing chestnut orchard on our Orchard Restore web page.

Early Spring
Early spring this year is coming on April 12. It had been a cool and wet spring so far. Spring comes to chestnut orchards when the chestnut trees start to bud out. Once the buds start opening frosts can cause damage on some types of chestnut trees. From this day forward this year frosts are bad news.

The orchard here has grass to help manage the orchard floor soils. This time of year the grass grows so fast we have to cut the grass twice a week. The cost of fuel for operating the equipment has increased faster than expected so we are modifying orchard management practices to reduce fuel consumption. The goal is to have about a 20% reduction in fuel usage for maintaining the orchard grass. This is a big change so there are likely going to be some challanges that come up as we work to the 20% savings.

This spring we are adding amost 300 new chestnut trees to the orchard. The trees arrived in late March but due to the cold spring most of the trees were planted in the second half of April. The cold weather included some late April snow and plenty of cold rain. This snow fell on April 21 making it the latest snow event on the books. If you work out the events here you will find many of the trees were being planted when it was snowing or snow was on the ground. The snow did not freeze the ground so the soils were saturated with water limiting the use of the planting auger. More the 60% of the trees had to be hand planted using a shovel. Hand digging the holes takes 3 times longer than using the auger attachment with the tractor.

Late Spring
There is some great news. First we have over 100 seedlings we started from seed. These young trees will be set out in the seedling beds at the end of May. Most of these trees are for chestnut breeding with the goal of producing a very nice chestnut for the market. It will be years before we see any results from these efforts since it takes 6-9 years for a seedling to produce any nuts. This next winter's research project is to obtain knowledge on how to shorten this period from the 6-9 years to 2-3 years.

The second item in the big new is the results of modify orchard management practices to reduce fuel usage by 20%. We were able to reduce fuel usage by close to 50%. Aside from reducing fuel usage we were able to reduce labor costs by almost the same amount. It feels great to help the world reduce the need for fossil fuels and keep orchard management costs stable. Even with the 50% reduction of fuel cost, fuel costs have gone up even more than we have saved. The end result is the cost of farming chestnuts has gone up. Here are two more examples of our higher costs. One herbicide when purchased in the 2.5 gallon container went from $25.00/gallon to almost $50.00/gallon. Fertilizers are essential for commercial chestnut production. This year fertilizer is up 130% from last year. If the market for chestnuts can not support higher prices then we are going to see many chestnut orchards take out and replaced with housing or retail parking lots.

For the farm, this is best time of the year. Sunny days have replaced the cold damp overcast days. Daylight extends to almost 10:00 PM and the sun rises before 5:00 AM. The grass that covers the orchard floor grows so fast we have to cut it once a week or more. This summer is a little different than most in that the soil moisture is so high we continue to have trees die because of the excessive soil moisture. This year the chestnut trees started their bloom the first week in July and on the 10th of July the trees are in full bloom. The smell of the bloom is in the air. Only roses and orange blossoms have a better smell than chestnuts.

We continue our research work into what kind of soils will chestnuts live and be prosperous in. There are two conditions associated with soils and chestnut trees that will kill a chestnut tree almost very time. Well known to most chestnut growers is clay soils. A simple test to check if your soil is a clay where a chestnut tree will not grow is to take a small handfull and work the soil in your hand. If the soil holds together after rolling it in your hands for a minute or two then it is a clay where chestnut trees are likely not survive. The other condition is wet soils. If the soil gets saturated while the chestnut trees are actively growing, then this will kill most chestnut trees. If you walk through the ground and the soil makes sounds because the soil is saturated with water then chestnut trees will die in these conditions. Our farm will continue to work to find cultivars more tolerant of clay and wet soils. Very few types of trees can live in water saturated soils. It is unlikely we will be able to develop a chestnut tree that will live and grow in saturated soil. Our goal is to develop a root stock that will help keep the chestnut tree from dying when the soil moisture gets close to or saturated for short periods of time. For example, a storm passes through dumping more water than the soil can pass through or when someone leaves the sprinklers running for to long.

This year we developed a new grafting technique for chestnut trees. This new technique is what we are calling the "Green on Green Grafting" technique. The primary purpose of developing this technique is to reduce the time need to evaluate new seedling trees for nut production. Using the Green on Green grafting technique an orchardist can reduce the time to first nut production by about 1 year. Current techniques require at least 3 years for the first chestnuts to bare on a tree if the seedling stock is grafted to a mature compatible chestnut tree. Look for a full article in the farm log for 2009.

Leaf Analysis of Chestnut Leafs
This year we again took leaf samples from two different fields. The samples were taken in mid August 2008 and sent to the lab for analysis. Here are the results of the analysis.

Leaf Analysis of Chestnut Leaf Samples - Mineral Soils
Component Results
Nitrogen (NO3) 3.61%
Sulfur 0.22%
Phosphorus 0.18%
Potassium 0.89%
Magnesium 0.27%
Calcium 1.63%
Zinc 69 ppm
Manganesse 2001 ppm
Iron 189 ppm
Copper 7 ppm
Boron 47 ppm

Leaf Analysis of Chestnut Leaf Sample - Organic/Peat Soil
Component Results
Nitrogen (NO3) 3.48%
Sulfur 0.22%
Phosphorus 0.16%
Potassium 0.53%
Magnesium 0.45%
Calcium 1.65%
Zinc 50 ppm
Manganesse 1042 ppm
Iron 106 ppm
Copper 6 ppm
Boron 59 ppm

We were visited by a Washington State University Extention Agent this fall. His visit was to help us refine our orchard management practices. When reviewing the leaf analysis we were informed that young trees such as the ones the leaf samples were taken from, do not provide a good reference point for managing the soil conditions. Those of you looking at the results presented on this web site since 2006 for comparision with your trees, should use caution because the trees the leaves were harvested from are only 3 years old. Chestnut trees are not considered mature until about the 8th year.

Its mid-October and the chestnuts are being harvensted. This year the harvest is very small for two reasons. The primary reason there is a small harvest is because of poor pollonation in the spring. When the chestnut trees were in bloom in the spring the daytime high temperatures were in the low to mid 50s. There were some chestnut trees that did set nuts and others that did not. Even trees of the same cultivar next to each other had differing results. It would appear as if the day time highs have to be above 55F degrees for pollonation to be successfull. The other reason is by design. If the chestnut trees are allowed to grow to fast then the limb structure will be too weak to support the weight of the nuts near harvest time causing excessive limb breakage. To prevent the future losses, we prune the chestnut trees with the goal of developing strong limb structures so when the nut load on the tree is high, the tree will not have limbs breaking. Chestnut experts all agree upon the need to develop good limb/branch structures when the chestnut trees are young (between 3 and 10 years old).