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Now is the time for chestnuts

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[Earth Eats theme music]

KAYTE YOUNG:  From WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana, this is Earth Eats and I'm your host Kayte Young.

JULIA VALLIANT:  We can feed the world better through these perennial staple tree crops than we're managing to feed the world now, through soybeans and corn and meats, which have really harsh environmental consequences as well as nutritional and ecological.

KAYTE YOUNG:  This week on the show we talk with Julia Valliant and Olivia Shoemaker about their research into growing tree nut crops and what it can mean for Midwestern agriculture. And we visit a u-pick orchard to gather seasonal treats. That story's just ahead, stay with us.

[music, NAT KING COLE, Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...]

KAYTE YOUNG:  No this is not our Christmas episode, I don't usually do that. This story is about what's roasting on the open fire. That's right, chestnuts. Until recently that song was really my only association with chestnuts, but this Fall I had the chance to explore a chestnut grove right here in Indiana. My neighbor and friend, Julia Valliant, happens to be a Researcher with the Sustainable Food Systems Science Group at Indiana University. She's got an interest in chestnut growers in the Midwest and she invited me out to a u-pick orchard to check it out.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I'm a sucker for foraging of any kind really; mushrooms, berries, persimmon, papaw. I almost never have the chance to gather tree nuts. We headed up to Anderson Orchard on a Sunday morning in September, peak apple picking and pumpkin patch season. Even at 9 am the parking lot was filling up and the playground was populated with sweater-clad youngsters and their plaid flanneled parents. Anderson Orchard is a shining example of agritourism. The place serves as an attractive destination for families to experience all things autumnal and seasonally picturesque. The dwarf apple trees make for easy handpicking, they have a pumpkin patch where families can pick out their own jack-o-lanterns for carving.

KAYTE YOUNG:  But we were there for the chestnuts. Julia had heard this was the last weekend for those and we didn't want to miss out. Chestnuts aren't really the main attraction for most visitors to Anderson Orchard. Julia had heard from the owners that folks originally from East Asian countries are the primary customers. We picked up bags from a table at the edge of the orchard and got directions to the nut tree groves.

ORCHARD GUIDE:  See that great big tree right there?


ORCHARD GUIDE:  If you head towards that, you've got to go just down the hill and there's a bunch of them there.


ORCHARD GUIDE:  Or you can walk out here, go to the first road, gravel road, you can make a right turn on and that will take you to lots of them, they'll be on your right side. Yeah, if I was walking back there I would cut right through the trees.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Okay, we're gonna cut through the trees.

ORCHARD GUIDE:  Yeah, that's, that's your shortest way right there, just keep walking toward the big trees.

KAYTE YOUNG:  We trudged through the rows of short statued apple trees laden with perfect looking fruit. It was difficult to walk past them without picking but we stayed focused. After about a five minute walk the chestnut grove came into view. Next to the tiny apples, the chestnut trees were towering and majestic. Their large branches formed a canopy, a shady sort of tall tunnel. Right away we saw a couple of women gathering nuts around the bases of the trees. They both wore gloves and one had a pair of kitchen tongs. We introduced ourselves to Linlin and her mother.


LINLIN:  Hello.



KAYTE YOUNG:  Are you finding any?

LINLIN:  Yeah. Chestnuts?


LINLIN:  Yeah.

KAYTE YOUNG:  We've never done this before so we have no idea.

LINLIN:  Yeah, this is my first time too.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Oh really? Oh look at all those! There's a lot.

LINLIN:  Yeah.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So you just looked around.

LINLIN:  Yeah.

KAYTE YOUNG:  May I see?

LINLIN:  Yeah.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Oh my gosh! Can I take a picture?

LINLIN:  Sure, sure, sure. I would shake it but it's too big for us to shake.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah, those branches are too high.

KAYTE YOUNG:  They drove down from Carmel for the harvest and we asked how they liked to cook the chestnuts.

LINLIN:  You bake them or you can make soup. My dad actually makes it, chickens mix well with chestnuts, also beef is good. You can just cut it open and put some sugar or honey on the top and put in the oven, and wait to it pops up. It's very sweet. I like to roast it but my dad already has a plan to make some chicken soup.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Oh okay.

LINLIN:  Yeah, this is my first time too. My friend came over yesterday and she said that she got a bunch so I just picked whatever on the ground.


LINLIN:  I've never seen a chestnut tree, this is my first time. I have always eaten those, because in China they grow in the mountain area. I grew up in the city. My neighborhood definitely didn't have those. But I think on the east coast or west coast in China they grow a lot. It's seasonal, I think it's coming out like now until winter time and people just sell them roasted. I like them.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I've only ever had them roasted. I think European Americans, usually the tradition is just roasting them around Christmas time.

LINLIN:  Oh you actually eat this? I thought Americans didn't eat this.

KAYTE YOUNG:  It's a holiday thing, because there's like a Christmas song that has chestnuts roasting, and I've never had them any other way really.

LINLIN:  Yeah. My dad makes soups, it's just the whole thing, you peel them and then put them into the soup and you just kind of cook for a few hours and then it has some flavor. The chestnut itself also has a very special texture.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah. It does have a really unique texture.

LINLIN:  Yeah.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah. I can picture it in a soup, I just have never had it.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Linlin tried to give us some of what she harvested but I assured her we could find some of our own.

LINLIN:  You want to take some?

KAYTE YOUNG:  No, no, no, it's okay, we'll find some.

KAYTE YOUNG:  She tried to insist.

LINLIN:  Come on, come on, just take some.

KAYTE YOUNG:  We're good, we're good foragers.

LINLIN:  Yeah. Okay, yeah alright.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Thank you so much though, I appreciate it. And thank you for talking to us, I really appreciate it, just on the spot but thank you.

LINLIN:  No problem. Yeah. Nice meeting you guys. Have a nice day.

KAYTE YOUNG:  You too.

KAYTE YOUNG:  It took some hunting, kicking leaves around and even shaking some branches but I did manage to find a few chestnuts. Often when they fall from the tree they're free from their spiky hull and you can just grab the shiny brown nuts. But some of them were in their protective armor and it was painful to try to free them with my bare hands.

KAYTE YOUNG:  We ran into another forager, Hwasan, she's originally from South Korea and she lives in Bloomington with her husband Ricky. They came to the orchard for apples but were thrilled to find the chestnut trees. Hwasan was impressed with my haul.

HWASAN:  Oh yeah she's really good, yeah.

KAYTE YOUNG:  She showed us a trick for freeing the nuts from the prickly shell.

KAYTE YOUNG:  It hurts. I was using a stick and stepping on it.

HWASAN:  Yeah, so you open it like this. Okay. Open it like this, okay.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Awesome.

HWASAN:  See, look. Open it like this.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Hwasan puts one foot on either side of the nut and works it back and forth to loosen the shell. Once the nut emerges she reaches down and grabs it without getting stuck by the sharp spikes. I asked her how she prepares the chestnuts.

HWASAN:  Just the bottom here, slash the skin, then they go to oven at maybe 400 degrees and maybe 15/20 minutes. And you bake, then you can eat.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Okay so you just roast them?

HWASAN:  Yeah I roast.

KAYTE YOUNG:  You don't cook them any other way?

HWASAN:  Uh uh.


KAYTE YOUNG:  She says if the shell is too tough to cut, she boils them, peels them and eats them plain. In South Korea they're sold roasted as street food but at home, she says people usually boil them. She says they're a popular food for the Korean Thanksgiving which takes place around the time of the autumn equinox. As we were leaving there was some question about whose chestnut stash was whose.

HWASAN:  This is yours? Or these are hers?

KAYTE YOUNG:  That's yours.

HWASAN:  This is yours? I don't know.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Or is this hers? This is mine.

HWASAN:  I think it is mine.


HWASAN:  Yeah.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah because mine had the light ones in it.

HWASAN:  Yeah, this is mine.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I'm still wondering if Hwasan accidentally ended up with my hard won treasure. But by the time we got up to pay it didn't matter. There was extra at the table for purchase. Apparently when Linlin brought her haul to be weighed, the price per pound was too high for her. She had seen them cheaper at the store.

LINLIN:  Yeah 12lb, so it's pretty good.


LINLIN:  I saw they are selling for cheaper, like they are selling more expensive so I just decided I just would at the store get them.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Oh okay.

LINLIN:  So, but I had fun yeah so here.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah it was fun picking them.

KAYTE YOUNG:  She just walked away. Julia and I could not believe it. I bought a couple of her pounds to supplement my meager collection, and like Linlin, I too had fun at the chestnut grove.

KAYTE YOUNG:  After a short break, we'll talk with Julia Valliant and her colleague Olivia Shoemaker about their research on tree nut crops in Indiana. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  After my visit to the chestnut grove out at Anderson Orchard, I wanted to learn more about the possibilities for tree nut crops in Indiana. I invited Julia Valliant into the studio, along with her fellow researcher Olivia Shoemaker to hear about their project.

JULIA VALLIANT:  I'm Julia Valliant. I am a researcher with our Sustainable Food System Science Group here on campus at IU and I'm a scientist with that group.

OLIVIA SHOEMAKER:  I'm Olivia Shoemaker, I'm a research assistant with the Indiana Tree Nuts Project, out of the Sustainable Food System Science Group at IU, and I'm also involved with various other food activities in Bloomington.

JULIA VALLIANT:  Our Sustainable Food System Science Group on Campus, we are a young group that's been around for just a handful of years. We're an interdisciplinary group of scholars and researchers from various social science disciplines, so we focus on learning mainly from people about how things are going with food, from the food production end of the spectrum, we do a lot of research with farmers, learning from farmers how their work is going, all the way to the eating or consumption end of the spectrum. We learn from people how accessing food, eating how they want to eat, is going for them. And everyone in between; the people who are aggregating food, distributing food, selling food, marketing food, making rules about food. And so we have people from anthropology, history, sociology, economics, public health, geography, numerous disciplines.

JULIA VALLIANT:  And we place a big focus on Indiana. At the same time we have studies all around the world. One of our youngest studies that Olivia and I have been working on for the past year, is learning from people around Indiana who are doing any kind of work around raising and selling tree nuts that do grow very well in Indiana, but our industries around chestnuts, hazelnuts and pecans, all of which are native to Indiana and can grow well here, these industries are not even in their infancy. These staple foods, or staple tree crops, that have always been here, are at the moment not something that many people in Indiana are doing and we'd like to see more people raising tree crops in Indiana.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So tree nuts in Indiana, you said it's in its infancy and you would like to see it grow, why does this matter? Why do we want more tree nuts? Why would this make sense for our state in terms of agriculture?

JULIA VALLIANT:  Well a few major reasons, one of which is climate change.So a thing that the planet Earth needs more of, is trees and there are numerous staple tree crops that have been displaced as a focus of production agriculture.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So what do you mean by production agriculture?

JULIA VALLIANT:  I mean our dominant approach to agriculture, both in Indiana, in the United States, and around the world, inspired by discoveries of the green revolution and exciting achievements during that time in how much we can grow when we're focusing on growing these monocultures of crops like soybeans and corn. They grow really well in Indiana. People are excited by those developments and over time began to recognize unintended consequences of those models, drawbacks of those models, that rely on these annual crops that need to be sewn every year.

JULIA VALLIANT:  So the appeal, or the benefits, of tree crops have really come into focus, as these perennial plants, that are very good for the ecosystem and that can be really productive as well in terms of food and nutrition, and that can be very productive as well in terms of people's earnings. Margins are very thin in commodity agriculture. It's not easy for someone raising soybeans and corn to earn the livelihood they want to earn.

KAYTE YOUNG:  No matter how big their farm is?

JULIA VALLIANT:  Yeah, you have to get bigger and bigger. I mean I've been hearing from farmers that you need 2,000 acres to operate if you want to earn the living that you want to earn. And so alternatives to that, of which there are many that allow people to earn more from their work, are appealing, and tree crops can be one of those in time. They require an initial investment and it takes a few years for the trees to begin to bear, but then once they do, there's a lot of promise around how much one can earn from raising tree crops.

OLIVIA SHOEMAKER:  What I think Julia eludes to is the opportunity that Indiana has, not only because we have a history in terms of these trees, in our food ways and in our culture and of the environmental benefits. Not just for people but for wildlife as well. But also thinking in the present, according to recent USDA data from an agricultural census that they did, I believe half of Indiana's land is in corn and soy, and of our total agriculture land, over 70% of that is in corn and soy and commodity crops. And while it's worked out and for some people it still is working, there's a lot of room for people to implement new systems and new models that have gained a lot of traction recently in our surrounding states.

KAYTE YOUNG:  It's funny, I mean it's not funny, to think about how much land is, is devoted to corn and soybeans and how this is seen as an agricultural region and I had a friend recently visited from, from Texas and he's like, " Google maps took us off the road and we've been driving through all these corn fields and I just want to get out of the car and just go grab an ear of corn." And I was like, "Oh, okay, so that's what you think this is, that it's an edible crop." And I think it's a shocker for some people to realize these crops, well they do get made into food in some cases, they get made into lots of other things and they're not edible straight off the vine or the stalk or whatever, and yeah I think it's interesting to think about the state as farm country, and yet to really know that this isn't really food in the sense of you put it on your table. It's something that I think about a lot.

OLIVIA SHOEMAKER:  You're right, people think it's sweetcorn, when it's being raised to become ethanol or to become livestock and poultry feed.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So right now there's not a whole lot of food being grown in these real crops right now. We all know some local farmers who are growing fruits and vegetables but that's a pretty small portion of the farmland in Indiana right now.

JULIA VALLIANT:  And just to clarify those numbers, of our total land in Indiana, over half of it is in soybeans and corn. And of our agricultural land, which is most of our land you know, three-quarters of that agricultural land is in beans and corn.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Let's talk more about what kinds of tree nuts do well in Indiana. I don't usually think of nut growing in Indiana, in the Midwest.

OLIVIA SHOEMAKER:  Well there are many tree crops that can grow in Indiana and the ones that this study focuses on specifically are chestnut, hazelnut, pecan, walnut, English and black walnut, wild and cultivated. And those choices came to light from a poll that Julia did of the members of the Indiana Nut and Fruit Growers Association and based on their decisions and their input, we thought okay, these are the nuts that we want to focus on and that have a real potential here in our state.

JULIA VALLIANT:  We also focused on them because they're the ones that seem to have the most commercial promises, for people to raise them and sell them for money. We are meeting a lot of very enthusiastic hobbyists, people who, the main thing they want to do with their free time is breed trees and study tree breeding. And so people who have built over years these wonderful genetic collections on their land, of fruit trees and nut trees, and who are super knowledgeable, but for whom selling the nuts isn't much of a priority. We have a few commercial nut growers around the state; a couple of chestnuts, maybe one or two of hazelnuts and several of pecans. That's what we're finding so far, of the people who are already inclined in Indiana to raise nuts and then try and sell them.


OLIVIA SHOEMAKER:  And that's been a real surprise to me at least, coming into the study, because I think, like many people I've talked to, you don't think of Indiana being a home to pecans, but they've really made a name for themselves lately with the people that we've been talking to.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So you can get a pretty good price for nut crops compared to commodity crops, but they do take longer. What are some of the other complications or barriers?

JULIA VALLIANT:  Okay, well definitely the start up investment, because it takes time before they begin to bear and yield, and during that time you're not earning money off of your land, unless you are growing another crop or raising livestock or poultry in between the young trees. So there's that start up investment. And then on down the road there are numerous obstacles, one of which is that you need to find a place to source the trees that will grow these commercially viable varieties. There are few nurseries selling them. So that's a bottleneck.


JULIA VALLIANT:  So we have figured out that there's several bottlenecks around just growing the plant itself, and then there are bottlenecks later around bringing the nut to market. Definitely the need to invest in equipment and machinery is an obstacle and we've been inspired by models that we've been learning from some of our neighboring states, that have growers cooperatives. Nut growers cooperatives for among hazelnut growers and chestnut growers. So those are people who are working together, pooling their money to invest in equipment, pooling their nuts and then making their nuts into value added products that they can sell for more money.


JULIA VALLIANT:  And they go flying off the shelves and they're all sold out within three weeks, and their season is over until next year.


JULIA VALLIANT:  So in terms of those machinery expenses, the growers cooperatives are really intriguing and we're beginning to learn about them.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So what are the neighboring states? Like Illinois?

OLIVIA SHOEMAKER:  If you look on, at it on a map, it creates a bit of a halo, so to the west Illinois, they have a chestnut cooperative, to the northwest Wisconsin, they have a hazelnut cooperative, north in Michigan, a chestnut cooperative, they make chestnut flour, it's very popular, and then in Ohio another chestnut cooperative.

JULIA VALLIANT:  And the one in Illinois is, mainly in Iowa, also in Illinois, and the cooperatives have anywhere between like five and 40 members, so they range in size.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So you're interested in finding ways to help promote those kind of cooperatives here in Indiana?

JULIA VALLIANT:  Discover if we can form one of our own or if people would want to join the ones that already exist.

KAYTE YOUNG:  American chestnuts were once a widespread native crop covering much of the eastern half of the United States and Southern Ontario, Canada. It was one of the largest and fastest growing trees in the eastern forests. And because chestnut wood is straight grained and rot resistant, the lumber was used for fence posts, log cabins, furniture making and even caskets. The nuts were a major food source for wildlife, livestock and for humans. Around the turn of the 20th century, a deadly blight from Asia swept through. Here's Olivia.

OLIVIA SHOEMAKER:  In about 1904, is when a fungal infection called blight was discovered in New York, actually at the Bronx Zoo according to some reports. It may have been around before then, but that's when it was discovered. And what happened is that it was brought over by people who brought trees from Asia, chestnut trees, Japanese chestnut trees and Chinese chestnut trees. And they did fine, but when this certain infection that they carry met the American chestnut tree, it absolutely ravaged it. And it's estimated that it took out very quickly millions of trees on millions of acres and with that, a collapse of an economy and also a cultural standing.

JULIA VALLIANT:  It's not known for certain how the trees found their way to the US, but it was likely Americans who introduced the varieties, you know, trees that Americans had imported from other countries. It was a time of all this, you know, adventuring and discovery around plants, genetic materials and all these, you know, American explorers bringing seeds and plants and tissues and animals here, from all over the world.


JULIA VALLIANT:  So it was a big trend and an industry in itself then. We we can safely say that, you know, it would have been Americans going out and retrieving the trees and bringing them here.


KAYTE YOUNG:  And yeah, so this was happening in all sorts of fields and this one just happened to have a really devastating result on the chestnut, the American chestnut.

JULIA VALLIANT:  And one reason it was so devastating is because people for millennia had managed for these trees, because they were so valuable to their food ways. So you know indigenous Americans would manage wood lots and forests to support the chestnuts in growing, and that's one reason we had so many chestnuts to be devastated by the blight. It's a reason that we have so many oaks and hickories and fruit bearing bushes, especially because they were occurring, you know, natively, ecologically and also because native people were managing for them.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So what do you mean when you say managing for them?

JULIA VALLIANT:  I mean they were girdling or cutting down other types of trees that were less valuable to them or less valuable sources of forage for wildlife, that they wanted to hunt or raise. And they were using fire to encourage the growth of certain species. And the chestnut would have been one very valuable type of tree for them because of the amount of food that it would produce.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Can you talk more about the food and the food ways that are associated with the chestnut, because I think for a lot of Americans it's really seen as a holiday treat that's associated with A Christmas Carol, but thinking of it as a staple crop for a population, yeah, I would just like to know more about that.

JULIA VALLIANT:  It was a staple crop for people as an income stream for one thing. A range of households and communities would harvest these chestnuts for their own personal use as a wild cash crop for them to sell and earn some money. And so that supported this whole trade in chestnuts all over the Eastern United States. So it was important as a source of money and it was also important as a source of food, and we're just beginning to learn about the place of chestnut in traditional and current food ways.

JULIA VALLIANT:  But it's a neat nut because growers have explained to us that it's like a perishable fruit. It's less like an oily nut, like we think of, like a pecan or a hazelnut or a peanut, it's more like a carbohydrate. So we've heard people compare it to a potato. It's sweet and it's rich in carbohydrates as well as proteins. But it's not so much an oil source as other nuts are and so we've heard folks explain that in traditional cultures, where people have long had chestnuts and still do, they eat them in quantity, so roast them in quantity, and people sit around eating a platter of them, like you would roasted potatoes.


JULIA VALLIANT:  And as we've been meeting more and more people, they have all these savory ways of preparing chestnuts, in soups and roasted in savory ways, eaten raw, and also sweet ways of preparing them, roasting them and sweetening them. We were just watching the Black Forager yesterday and she was microwaving chestnuts.

OLIVIA SHOEMAKER:  A really modern take. She picked one up off the ground, took it home, cut it open, because it comes in a very spiky hull, it's really great protection for the nut, and she cut it open, wrapped it in a wet paper towel, microwaved it for 30 seconds and then just ate it as a snack.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And you talked about making flour with it.

OLIVIA SHOEMAKER:  Yes. So that's something currently that the cooperative in Michigan does, but it's also something that has its roots in indigenous food ways; they would grind down the chestnut into flour and use it in that was as well, and people across the country still do that.

JULIA VALLIANT:  Yeah and I was just reading a book about Italian traditional food ways and there are all these recipes for chestnut flour cakes, chestnut flour breads, so that's a longstanding approach to cooking chestnuts.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah. I mean it is really sweet and flavorful so you can imagine a lot of different things you could do with it, and large, you know they're a pretty good size in terms of the nut meat, [LAUGHS] you know, they're bigger than a hazelnut and don't have a lot of nooks and crannies to deal with.

JULIA VALLIANT:  Yeah and the ones that I had recently I was very struck by their sweetness.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah. Even just eating them raw, they taste pretty good. Like I thought you had to do something to them to eat them but you don't, like you can just eat them.

JULIA VALLIANT:  Right, eating those I was like, "Oh this is why people say it's like a fruit because it really is sweet like a fruit.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So there are people who are growing chestnuts in Indiana but not very many. We went out to Anderson Orchard to check that out, and they have a beautiful grove and the trees are mature. I mean these are big trees.

JULIA VALLIANT:  They're 40 years old.

KAYTE YOUNG:  They're 40 years old, wow. So they're really different too from like an apple crop it seemed like, you see these kind of young low trees that people can do a u-pick thing from, and then there's these giant chestnut trees that just don't even fit the landscape. I mean they do but not, not a u-pick orchard kind of landscape.

JULIA VALLIANT:  Yeah, the contrast between those dwarf apple trees and then the big tall cascading chestnut trees, as the shady grove where you can also go and harvest some food after you're done with the apples and pumpkins, it was just such a pleasurable place to be. And the people who run the orchard have explained to us that they're content with how it works out for them economically, as a u-pick chestnut orchard, where people can come gather the nuts from the ground and pay for them by the pound.

OLIVIA SHOEMAKER:  The way that some growers, commercial and hobbyists, have adapted to what happened with the American chestnut blight is by diving into other cultivars and other strains that have been more successful. So at a place like Anderson's, that's selling commercially, those are mostly hybrid and Chinese chestnuts, which do very well ecologically and in terms of yield.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah, I was going to ask like how is the blight being managed now and how are chestnut growers dealing with that? So they're bringing in cultivars that are resistant to that blight?

JULIA VALLIANT:  Yeah, it's like two different conversations taking place around the chestnut in America. You have efforts to restore the American chestnut by breeding it with other varieties and progressively making a variety that's more and more and more derived from American chestnuts, but still has a little bit of the imported chestnuts to give it the resistance to the blight. Because the situation with the American chestnuts now it's very devastating, the trees will grow but then die before they begin to bear.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Oh really?

JULIA VALLIANT:  And so you can find some young chestnut trees around, but then they succumb to the blight. So there's this effort to bring back the American chestnut, be able to reestablish it genetically. And then the conversation that we're following is separate from that one because we're focused on the food nuts, and this is entirely around growers in our country who are raising imported varieties of chestnut, because those are not susceptible to the blight and will still bear nuts.

OLIVIA SHOEMAKER:  The blight is sad, it goes under the bark and it attacks the cambium, so it kills everything above ground but it doesn't attack the roots. So the American chestnut tree will stay alive underground and it will try to grow and try to come back, but it's not strong enough because the disease is happening above ground.


OLIVIA SHOEMAKER:  And so you may see some signs in a sapling and get really excited but it's very unlikely that it will produce again as it once did. But what people are doing, which is really innovative and people are really excited about it, making these crosses. One example now is the 15/16th chestnut, so 15/16th of it is American and then 1/16th of it is Chinese chestnut, so slowly by slowly trying to restore what was.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And so there's a hope that there's enough of what makes it resistant to the blight in that variety.

JULIA VALLIANT:  Yeah, and be able to restore the chestnut on a more wide scale, level to the landscape.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And is the idea behind that that the American chestnut, though it does struggle with the blight, is ultimately more suitable to the landscape than the Chinese cultivars? Like what is the interest in preserving the American chestnut? I mean I can imagine some reasons but I'm just wondering if they are practical reasons.

JULIA VALLIANT:  There's a huge conversation around this and I think part of it nostalgia and a certain patriotism. The American chestnut has a different stature than the imported chestnuts; it's taller, it has, has a different presence in the canopy, in the forest, and I think too, you know, the sadness around it. Like it was such a loss in so many ways for people's food ways, for people's income, for the landscapes that had been carefully managed for millennia to support the growth of chestnuts. For the American chestnut to be completely obliterated, it's like the story of heartbreak and people want to heal it. So that is part of the inspiration. I am not familiar enough to know how close they might be to being able to have nuts from the American chestnut.

OLIVIA SHOEMAKER:  I think we're a few steps away.

JULIA VALLIANT:  Yeah. But there's like really energized networks of people around the country who are working on this and we've been grateful to get to learn from them. And at the same time place our focus on these imported chestnuts, which are the ones that people are using now to raise actual chestnuts.

KAYTE YOUNG:  My guests in the studio today are Julia Valliant and Olivia Shoemaker talking about their research on tree nut crops in Indiana. We'll hear more from them after a short break. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Kayte Young here. This is Earth Eats and our topic today is Midwestern tree nut crops with a focus on chestnuts. And I'm talking with researchers Julia Valliant and Olivia Shoemaker. I asked Julia to tell the story of how she first got interested in nut crops and what her vision is for the future of tree nuts in Indiana.

JULIA VALLIANT:  Yeah years ago I heard about some research that I think was led by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, where they did this big analysis, looking at the agricultural land of Planet Earth. And looking at all the land we have put right now to annual staples, such as soybeans and corn, and to a lesser extent wheat. And their analysis looked at what could we be raising nutritionally on this land if we were to instead put it to raising chestnuts and hazelnuts. Could we raise as much protein and could we raise as much fat and could we raise as many calories and carbohydrates as we do now? And I recall the answer being yes, in fact we can raise more. We can feed the world better through these perennial staple tree crops than we're managing to feed the world now through soybeans and corn and wheat, which have really harsh environmental consequences as well as nutritional and ecological.

JULIA VALLIANT:  And so that has stayed with me over the years as an inspiring story. And then just from starting to learn from the members of the Indiana Nut and Fruit Growers Association, about the work they're doing and the work they'd like to see happen in Indiana, we were able to put together an idea for a project, which the Indiana State Department of Agriculture decided to fund, to take stock of what's happening around Indiana now with tree nuts, and learn what the next steps are in encouraging more growers and landowners to get into raising these tree crops.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I mean immediately what I think of when I think of converting row crops to tree crops, I think of the time. I think of how long it takes for a tree to bear fruit or nuts.

JULIA VALLIANT:  Right. People have estimated the number of years you need to wait before the trees are bearing, and depending on how you approach it, whether you graft the tree or just wait for the roots to start bearing, it's five years, six years, ten years. And certainly our incentive mechanisms in agriculture right now are not set up to support people through that long term transition.


JULIA VALLIANT:  So there, there are calls by leaders in this conversation to establish more ways to help people to invest in producing perennial crops on their farms. And then there are other ways in which investors, who would like to support agricultural transitions to organic or to perennial, can invest in helping farmers and landowners to transition what their land is raising over time. It's sort of like venture capitalism or having outside investors in your operation. I've heard it referred to as patient, patient capital or patient investment, like it's going to take some time. It's sort of also like loan mechanisms where a farmer can borrow money and there are no expectations for payback to begin at all, until several years down the road and the interest is not accruing in that time. So you know novel mechanisms for how to help people make that leap.

JULIA VALLIANT:  We were excited to get to go visit a pecan orchard down near the Ohio River that was planted in 1940. It was so beautiful, these 80-year-old pecan trees swaying over us, and these goats grazing through them. And lots of conversations around the promise of pecans for Indiana. There are varieties now that really can do commercially well here. Lots of claims about how much money you can earn off of pecans, lots of rumors, but I feel like our research has kind of gone around and dispelled rumors one by one, about the promise of pecans. Like we heard about a pecan farmer in Illinois who really does have this great commercial pecan operation where they crack and sell and process the pecans on their farm, and they have this great farm store and they vend all over the state. And we had heard that he was very systematically taking land out of soybeans and corn every year and putting it to pecan trees, because that was working out for him economically. We had heard this from a few people and we went there.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah, have your dream come true.

JULIA VALLIANT:  Exactly. So we like drive to Illinois to get this story. He's not doing that.

OLIVIA SHOEMAKER:  He tried it once and converted I think maybe an acre patch, and now it's like his test plot, but it's not what he uses for production.


JULIA VALLIANT:  And what he's doing there, is he's taking wood lots, because they have a lot of native growing pecans there, over by St. Louis, near the Mississippi River, and he's managing them for pecans. So he's cutting out other trees and creating more favorable conditions for the pecan trees to grow in.


JULIA VALLIANT:  That's what he's mainly doing, you know, partially because he's so bought in to producing commodity soybeans and corn, because he is also an established row crop farmer.


JULIA VALLIANT:  And has invested his career in that. And it's hard to make the shift from letting go of your investment in that and investing in a different production system.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah, that makes sense.

OLIVIA SHOEMAKER:  We met another woman who has really taken over in stewarding her grandfather's land, on which he grew for a hobby for a long time. And she has this vision and has really taken the steps in connecting with local retailers, cafes and restaurants, who want to buy pecans from them and who want to sell them. But they've run into another bottleneck which is that they don't want to do the work of breaking the nuts out of their shells. And so what those co-ops have to offer is shared machinery, so that people on both sides win and that you don't have to say no to these opportunities, because you would have access to the technology that you need and things could work a lot more smoothly.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah. Yeah that makes sense. What about tree crops and water usage? When I imagine sort of a forest, you know like the pecan forest that you were talking about, that's something that's already established, but when I think about almond farming, in the Central Valley in California, I think oh my gosh, that's using a huge amount of water and I've just been hearing about that. So are there any problems, in terms of getting trees established especially?

JULIA VALLIANT:  We haven't heard anybody talk about irrigation or the trees' demand for water. They have described their management approaches and I can't think of anyone who's talked about watering.


JULIA VALLIANT:  They're talking about mowing, they're talking about spring, they're talking about pruning, they're talking about harvesting. Indiana's has 40-some inches of rain every year.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah. Okay we're not the Central Valley are we.

OLIVIA SHOEMAKER:  No. Of all of the places we've been to, I don't think I've seen one irrigation system set up, which is also another beautiful thing about perennials that have been established for a long time. When they're not intensively managed like maybe thousand acre almond farms are in California. Their roots go really deeply and have this really beautiful ability to bring up nutrients and water from the soil that has been building for a long time, especially in diversified systems.

KAYTE YOUNG:  We wrapped up our conversation by talking about the long term vision that's required when thinking about planting tree crops.

KAYTE YOUNG:  You have to be thinking beyond yourself to plant a nut grove I think.


JULIA VALLIANT:  And you also have to just start, because if you wait and contemplate it, you're missing precious time. So I've heard a few growers say, "Okay I just had to dive in and do it and stop thinking about it."

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah. Well thank you both so much for coming in to talk with me about this.

OLIVIA SHOEMAKER:  You're so welcome Kayte, thanks for having us here.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I've been speaking with Julia Valliant and Olivia Shoemaker about their nut tree research with the Sustainable Food Systems Science Group at Indiana University.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I was excited about experimenting with the chestnuts I brought home. I roasted them in my oven, not on an open fire, and I noticed that if they spent too long in the oven, they turned hard as rocks when they cooled. It must have something to do with their sugar content. So I quickly chopped up one batch before they cooled with the intention of grinding them into flour, which I eventually did in our spice grinder, which is actually a re-purposed coffee grinder. I ended up damaging the blades. That's how hard the roasted chestnuts are.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I made a batch of thin cookies following a Linzer recipe and substituting chestnut flour in place of the almond flour. They were tasty but I realized after the fact that I should have either ground the flour finer or sifted it before baking with it. There were a few bits in the cookies that I feared could break a tooth. We started referring to them as tooth-crackers. But the flour did have a nice distinctive sweet flavor. I'll have to give it another try next year and maybe I can use a proper grain mill instead of a coffee bean grinder. I'll keep you posted.

KAYTE YOUNG:  In the meantime check out all the information about tree nuts in Indiana on the Sustainable Food Systems website. We have a link at where you can also find more recipe ideas for chestnuts.

KAYTE YOUNG:  That's it for our show. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next time.

RENEE REED:  The Earth Eats team includes Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, Abraham Hill, Payton Knobeloch, Josephine McRobbie, Daniella Richardson, Harvest Public Media and me, Renee Reed.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Special thanks this week to Linlin, Hwasan, Julia and Olivia.

RENEE REED:  Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from the Artists at Universal Productions Music. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our Executive Producer is John Bailey.

close up of brown nut and leaves and a prickly shell

Chestnuts fall from the tree when they're ready, but they're often still covered in a protective prickly shell. (Kayte Young/WFIU)

“We can feed the world better through these perennial staple tree crops than we’re managing to feed the world now, through soybeans and corn and wheat--which have really harsh environmental consequences as well as nutritional and ecological.”

This week on the show we talk with Julia Valliant and Olivia Shoemaker about their research into growing tree nut crops and what it can mean for midwestern agriculture. 

And, we visit a u-pick orchard to gather seasonal treats.

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...

Until recently, that Christmas carol was my only association with chestnuts. But this fall, I had the chance to explore a chestnut grove right here in Indiana. 

Mature trees forming a shady canopy
In addition to u-pick harvesting, the mature chestnut grove also attracts visitors for photo shoots and weddings. (Kayte Young/WFIU) 

My neighbor and friend, Julia Valiant, is a researcher with the Sustainable Food Systems Science Group at Indiana University. She has an interest in chestnut growers in the midwest, and she invited me out to Anderson's, a u-pick orchard in Mooresville, to check it out. 

We met fellow foragers from several different countries, gathering chestnuts in the shade of the mature trees.

Linlin and Kayte standing under a tree, Kayte has microphone and headphones, Linlin has a metal box resting on large tree branch
Linlin and her mother are orignially from China. They live in Carmel now, and came to the orchard in search of chestnuts. They've been enjoying the nuts roasted and in soups their whole lives, but this was the first time they'd seen the trees or gathered their own harvest.(Julia Valliant)
Hwasan and Ricky Tungate standing und mature trees
Hwasan is from South Korea. She and her husband Ricky came up from Bloomington for apple picking--and were delighted to find the chestnut grove.(Julia Valliant)

After our visit to the orchard, I invited Julia Valliant and fellow researcher Olivia Shoemaker into the studio for an interview about their study of tree nut production in Indiana and surrounding states. 

Following our conversation, I did some poking around on the internet, looking for ways to prepare them other than the iconic 'roasting over an open fire.'

I found recipes for simple dry roasting and glazing with sugar, honey or maple. Here is a recipe for Maple-glazed Pan-Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Chestnuts, and I found several Chinese dishes of chestnuts braised with chicken and even mushrooms. I saw a lovely recipe for a cauliflower chestnut soup on the BBC Good Food website. It seems they are more commonly found in British cuisine than American--they had a number of recipes there

I'd love to hear your favorite ways to enjoy chestnuts. Drop us a line: eartheats at gmail dot com. 

Music on this episode:

The Christmas Song-Nat King Cole

The Earth Eats’ theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music.


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