Chestnut Trees and Chestnuts
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The Farm Log for 2014

Looking at the Last 8 Years

It has been 8 years since we started our efforts to be a producer of fresh chestnuts. Where has the 8 years taken us? Of those 8 years, some of the growing seasons have been outright cold, with 2008 - 2011 being the most difficult in the Pacific Northwest for more than 100 years. The growing season of 2008 was the coldest on record with only about 5 days reaching the 80's and the 70's was not reached until after July 4. The chestnut trees did not do well in those cool years. We suffered stress in the orchard on almost all the trees and also lost about 1 in 5 trees.

In 2006 we planted about 100 chestnut trees, split between grafted trees and seedlings. The grafted trees were planted in the soils we knew the chestnut trees would do well in. The seedlings were planted in the marginal soils. Most of the seedlings died. In fact, since 2006 we have become very good at killing chestnut trees. In 2014 we killed about 8500 trees due to problems with getting trees to take grafts. In 2008 we added about 500 trees to our orchard and we started propagating chestnut trees ourselves becuase our primary source of chestnut trees in California turned off the chestnut tree production line.

Between 2006 and 2010, with all the bad growing seasons, we did find that several chestnut tree cultivars did just fine and produced good crops even in the worst of growing years. This finding is what we needed to be able to continue putting our energies into producing fresh chestnuts. The chestnut tree propagation efforts were going well so we decided to purchase another field next to the river that runs through the valley. We found a very nice 15 acre place we purchased in 2010. The 15 acres is now all one big orchard. The trees were planted in 2011, 2012, and 2013. This year we harvested about 500 pounds of chestnuts from it.

The number of chestnut tree cultivars we have in our germplasm went from 6 chestnut cultivars in 2008 to over 30 cultivars today. North America lacks a high quality chestnut nursery that can ship to any state in the nation and Canada (Florida has a quarantine in place for chestnut trees from outside the state). To deliver to such a large region 10,000 trees will be required every year. In the history of chestnut tree producers in the USA, there has never been a producer propagating so many trees. We currently are able to produce up to 15,000 seedlings a year. Converting these seedlings into grafted trees is not easy because chestnut trees do not take grafts as easy as most other fruiting trees such as apple, cherry, plum, well most any other fruiting tree is very easy to get grafts to take compared to chestnut trees.

The spring is starting out very wet and a little cool. The greenhouse has about 12,000 trees in it. Some of the trees are from last year needing grafts placed on them and the rest are new seedlings. The trees will stay in the greenhouse until the soils in the nursery warm up, usually in mid May. In the orchard we are cleaning up from winter storm damage to trees and finishing the removal of shaded branches.

Aside from the wet start to spring, the day time temperatures are very nice giving us a lot of time to graft seedling trees in the orchard, turning them into a cultivar. This is the first year in 4 years we are able to start grafting trees by mid May. All the grafts are using the cleft graft technique. For our trees, almost all grafts are a single stick of scion wood being grafted to a matching diameter branch. The graft is performed in the same way it is described by the University of Missouri Extension service "Grafting". Bark grafts also work well with chestnut trees.

One of our biggest challenges is keeping the grass cut in the orchard. Our orchards now cover 23 acres and still growing. Depending on the type of mower you use cutting the grass with, mowing consumes anywhere from over 2 hours per acre on the slow end to less than 1/2 hour per acre for the fastest mowers. We have 3 different mowers we use. The big mower is a 9 feet wide Vrisimo flail mower. This mower will cut through cuttings from the trees and cut the grass very short helping to make the harvest of chestnuts easier. The other two mowers are both 6 foot wide with the mower deck out front of the mower. The side discharge mower is almost as fast as the 9 foot flail mower to cut an acre of grass. Our slowest mower has a mulching deck. This does a great job as long as the grass does not get to tall and the grass is dry. On average, we spend about 10 to 16 hours a week cutting grass during the growing season.

The grass is growing very fast this year requiring more time than in the years when we had poor growing seasons. So far this growing season has been great. Since April we have had some very nice days with daytime time high temps in the mid 70's. The grafts in the orchard are doing very well with several inches of new growth and a success rate of about 90%. Some of our plantings are spaced at 160 trees per acre because the tree growth habbits are very upright. We had some winter die back because of some very cold nights in early December last year. These trees have sent up suckers we are regrafting. Our original orchard plan was to have 5% pollenizers. Now after some years of experience we feel this is to few. So a lot of the new grafts are getting a pollenizer as the new top. When all done, we will have increased our pollenizers to 10% of the trees in the orchard.

The period of pollination started the first of July and was finished by July 18th. This was sooner than normal but the weather was very nice during this period so we are hoping for a harvest where almost all the burrs have 3 large nuts in them. The soil mosture has remained very good so the grass keeps on growing and we did not have to water the trees in the orchard until mid August. Overall growth on the trees looks great and our leaf analysis came in with all the nutrients within the normal range.

Over the past 5 years we have been working on developing methods to forecast the chestnut harvest from our orchard. We have examined the nuts developing in the burrs over their development. We counted burrs per growing tip, the tips per branch, the number of branches, the number of trees, and applied modern statics to find the answer to "How many pounds of chestnuts will the orchard produce this year?" To answer this a tool called a "Statistical Approximation Model" is helpful to identify key variables needed to perform the forecast. Our model found one variable holding a correlation to the resulting harvest production. The variable was tested using a regression analysis applied to the data collected over the pervious 5 years.

The model held true for 4 of the 5 years with a margin of error of about 1% year over year. The good news of all this is that 80% of the time the forecast is correct with a margin of error of about 1%. The not so good news is the model is helpful only 80% of the time. You could never bank on the forecasted harvest. Can a chestnut producer find any value in a tool to help guess their projected production? If the producer is self marketing their harvest, then the tool is very helpful to assist the producer in matching the expected harvest with identifying potential markets for the chestnut production.