RICHMOND, Va. — The chestnut blight wiped out the American Chestnut in the early 1900s, but a handful of farms in the commonwealth have found a way to maintain blight-resistant orchards. Marketing collectively as Virginia Chestnuts LLC, they are harvesting thousands of pounds of fresh chestnuts each year.
When David and Kim Bryant of Nelson County bought their land 15 years ago, it was full of pine trees. When the trees were cleared and their house was built, they sought a business venture that would allow them to use the land into retirement.
Kim said they thought about putting in an apple orchard but knew it would be too labor-intensive for just the two of them.
David said he was reading a magazine article about a couple in Delaware who were growing chestnuts. “I thought, ‘Hmm, chestnuts. We could do that,’ and we started researching it,” he said.
Kim said the couple in the article were already retired, so a chestnut orchard seemed viable.
The Bryants grow the Dunstan chestnut, which was bred and introduced by Chestnut Hill Tree Nursery in Florida. It is a hybrid of the American and Chinese chestnut, developed for blight resistance.
The couple purchased their first trees in 2009 and hand-planted them. Today, they have 1,600 on 23 acres. In the spring they sell chestnut seedlings to buyers from around the country.
In 2015, the Bryants established Virginia Chestnuts, which sources chestnuts from six local orchards—including their own, processes the nuts and sells them directly to customers. Sales are handled mostly online and by word of mouth.
“We found they can be packaged and shipped within one to two days, and when they arrive customers can put them in the fridge and they’ll last about two weeks,” Kim said.
The Bryants also spend fall weekends roasting and selling fresh chestnuts at Dickie Brothers Orchard in Nelson County.
“We’re trying to introduce chestnuts to a new group and grow the demand for them organically,” David said. “Right now we’re selling out what we have, so we’re doing well, but we’re looking to expand.”
Trials and tribulations
In 2013, summer cicadas did so much damage to the Bryants’ chestnut trees that that year’s crop was lost. Deer also love chestnuts and can present a problem, as can insects and the weather.
“Pests and not enough rain later in the summer can be hard on chestnut trees,” Kim said. “They are wind-pollinated, so if it is wet and rainy the trees won’t pollinate well.”
Chestnut trees love full sun and will not produce nuts if they do not get enough sunlight. “When the trees are 10 to 12 years old, [chestnut orchards] usually need to be thinned,” David said. “At that time the tree has paid for itself in nut production.” He spent this past winter pruning all 1,600 trees on the Bryant farm by hand.
Chestnut harvest typically lasts six weeks, beginning around Sept. 20 and ending in October. “The bulk of our chestnuts fall in October,” David said. “We continually harvest some every day, often twice a day.”
The first of the crop is hand-harvested, then later in the season, the Bryants use equipment made for harvesting pecans. “There isn’t any chestnut equipment in the United States,” David said. “Most of it is in Italy.”
For more information about Virginia Chestnuts and its growers, visit virginiachestnuts.com.
The most important tree
According to Chestnut Hill Tree Nursery, located in Gainesville, Fla., the American chestnut was once the most important food and timber tree species in the Eastern hardwood forest. It was almost entirely destroyed by a bark fungus accidentally introduced from overseas in 1904.
Within 40 years, more than 30 million acres of chestnut trees were killed from Maine to Georgia and west to the Mississippi in the largest ecological disaster in American history.
Visit chesnuthilltreefarm.com for more information.
— Virginia Farm Bureau Federation