Chestnut farming offers new crop for area farmer

NICK JOHNSON, farm owner, and James DeDecker, Michigan State University Extension educator, spent much of their Saturday planting chestnut trees in Moltke Township. (Photo by Peter Jakey)
NICK JOHNSON, farm owner, and James DeDecker, Michigan State University Extension educator, spent much of their day planting chestnut trees in Moltke Township. (Photo by Peter Jakey)

About 20 people attended the chestnut field day at Ox Heights in Moltke Township. It’s the family chestnut farm of Nick and Abby Johnson where hundreds of trees are being put to the test to see if a specialty crop can be sustained in the rolling hills, five miles from the big lake.
The couple received a grant more than a year ago and planted hundreds of chestnut trees, and it has already been reported, they have been receiving fruits of their labor. Trees are sporting several spiny burrs that cover the fruit. Some burrs can carry as many as three chestnuts.
When the time is right, the burrs will open and the nuts will start falling. It could be a week or two in Moltke. Downstate, they are already falling. Examples from south of Lansing were on display for the presentation.
“I think the event came out very well,” said Nick Johnson. “From the people who commented, they said they were impressed with the details of how the orchard was laid out and how much data we are collecting and reporting on.”
“(Participants) also felt like they gained a lot of knowledge in regards to what an eatable chestnut is, and what it takes to grow,” said Abby. “I am optimistic it is going to keep moving forward. As long as we don’t get any red flags.”
Part of the day was planting more than 100 additional chestnut trees that were purchased from a Missouri nursery. They were planted near one of the highest points on the Johnson’s property. The only other places in the north attempting to produce chestnuts are near Traverse City and an orchard that is starting up in Petoskey.
“There have been a couple of orchards by Millersburg that have been planted,” said Nick. “Survival there has not been as good.”
Millersburg’s weather may not be conducive because it gets too cold.
The hills of Moltke seem to provide enough of a breeze where it does not get as cold.
“The coldest temps are when it is really calm and the air does not move,” said Nick. “Here, even on a calm day like today, there is a breeze on the hill. I think the hill and Lake Huron interact to always keep the wind moving.”
The tree with the most burrs had 20. At $6 a pound retail, that tree could net $18.
“Most orchards don’t yield nut production until year five,” said Nick. “But, from the people we have talked to, our trees have burrs and they are already producing nuts, so that is a good sign.”
There are 575 trees in the Johnson’s orchard.
“It is exciting to think about the opportunities for a new crop in our county,” said James DeDecker, Michigan State University Extension educator. “We often talk about our limitations in this part of the state, but this is a potential bright spot where you have the right intersection of location and climate and soils, as well as demand for the crop.
“It’s a small area geographically, that would be suitable, but for those people that have the right property it could be the right opportunity.”
Additionally, DeDecker said it is an investment that could last 200 years.