Hunt, a research scientist at the University of Missouri Center
for Agroforestry, walks among rows of chestnut trees at the
research station near New Franklin. The center is working to
develop Asian chestnuts as an alternative crop for Missouri’s
Every year, Americans
lift their voices in song and reminisce about “chestnuts
roasting on an open fire.” Ironically, while everybody knows
that turkey and some mistletoe help to make the Christmas season bright,
few Americans have actually tasted chestnuts, a starchy nut that all
but disappeared from our shores as a blight decimated native chestnut
trees at the dawn of the 20th century.
a recent immigrant or grew up in an Eastern city where street vendors
roast imported chestnuts, it’s likely your sentimental view
of chestnuts comes mostly from “The Christmas Song.” Nat
King Cole may have secured the chestnut’s place in America’s
heart but researchers and marketing experts at the University of
Missouri Center for Agroforestry want to make a place for it on our
Over the past five
years, on-campus staff of the Center for Agroforestry has worked
with field staff at the university’s
Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center in New Franklin to
raise more than 50 types of Asian chestnut trees in an effort to
form recommendations for commercial growers. Meanwhile, they’ve
begun raising awareness of the nut by hosting an annual Chestnut
Roast, introducing the nut’s flavor to chefs (see
recipes) and taking chestnuts to farmer’s
could be a $15 million a year industry in 20 years here. It could
be huge,” says Michael Gold, associate director
of the Center for Agroforestry, located on the Univer-sity of Missouri’s
Chestnuts grow in small pods inside a spiny burr.
chestnuts are most often eaten whole as a yuletide treat, Gold would
like to see Americans incorporate the nut into their daily diets. “There
is no end of ways that you can cook with them,” Gold says.
chestnuts can garnish fish or salads and add new flavor to stuffings
for fowl. Chestnuts can be cooked like potatoes and carrots in soup
or ground to flour for baking. There are even dessert recipes that
call for pureed or glazed chestnuts.
Craig Cyr, executive
chef and co-owner of The Wine Cellar and Bistro in downtown Columbia,
has demonstrated chestnut cooking at the Agroforestry Center’s
annual Chestnut Roast and has begun offering chestnut dishes to his
customers. His latest creation is a ravioli, stuffed with chestnuts,
apples and cheese.
a nice medium for a filling for ravioli because it’s
so starchy,” Cyr says. “When you puree it, it gets
really nice and smooth. It holds its shape very well and you can
mix a lot of different things into it.”
large nut with a thin shell, the chestnut is often confused with
the buckeye. The similarity ends with appearance, though. A sure
way to tell them apart is that chestnuts grow inside a spiny burr. “Does
it look like a porcupine?” Gold
asks. “Then you have a chestnut.”
Unlike pecans or
walnuts, chestnuts are low in fat and high in moisture. “We
call it the un-nut,” Gold says. “It’s really
like a grain that grows on a tree.”
|Michael Gold, left, associate director of the MU Center for Agroforestry
discusses chestnut production at the test orchard of the Horticulture
and Agroforestry Research Center in New Franklin, while Ken Hunt
surveys one of the trees he manages.
Ken Hunt, the research
scientist responsible for the Horticulture and Agroforestry
Research Center’s chestnut orchard struggles to describe
the flavor. “It’s
a little like a sweet potato. It’s starchy but it’s
says. “It has a sweet, delicate, earthy flavor.”
trees grow well in the hills above the Missouri river — the
same soil where apple and peach crops thrive. Chestnuts
are being touted as a supplemental crop for fruit growers
because the trees are so similar. Other potential chestnut
growers include tobacco farmers, faced with the loss of
price supports, and vintners.
think about the possibility of mixing vineyards and chestnut orchards,
the ambiance that we could create for Missouri is really
Rachel McCoy, senior information specialist for the Columbia-based
While the state’s
agroforestry experts say they are absolutely “nutty” about
chestnuts, they insist their expectations for the market
trying to do this based on our research and not based on what we
wish would be,” Gold says.
Chestnuts need to be cooked to be enjoyed. The traditional methode
involves roasting whole chestnuts over a fire or outdoor grill.
Each year, the
United States imports about 5 million pounds of chestnuts and produces
less than 2 million pounds domestically. Producers can’t keep
up with demand, says Gold, whose staff edits the
newsletter of the Western Chestnut Grower’s Association and keeps close
tabs on the market.
If Americans only
know chestnuts from Christmas carols, who’s buying all
Demand is strong among ethnic groups, particularly
Asians and southern Europeans, agroforestry experts
say. “There is a population out there already that
are familiar with chestnuts and will gobble them
up,” Hunt says. “They’d
love to buy some and have trouble finding them.”
immigrants and Americans seeking new and different
flavors, the chestnut has a strong future.
And Missouri may be in a unique position to capitalize
on it, Gold says.
Much of the state’s advantage comes from the work done at the
New Franklin research farm, which is served by Howard Electric Cooperative.
horticulture field station, the center was
expanded to include agroforestry in 1998.
drives a mechanical harvest beneath a grove of chestnut trees.
Until recently all the trees at the center were harvested by
hand. Harvest simply involves picking fallen burrs off the
projects are diverse and include alley cropping, in which traditional
crops grow among rows of trees; forest farming of ginseng, shiitake
mushrooms and other crops; silvopasture, which combines trees, forest
and livestock; and the study of windbreaks to control soil
erosion and forest buffers to protect water quality. As a U.S. National
Arboretum plant research site, the center evaluates ornamental trees
and shrubs to determine cold hardiness and resistance to disease
and insects. A flood tolerance laboratory includes a dozen 600-foot-long
channels where researchers study the impact of standing or flowing
water on trees, grasses and soybeans.
Several of the
projects hold promise for small farmers. Needles from pine trees
may prove to be a profitable source of mulch and orchard-grown
black walnuts may offer an alternative to traditional wild harvests.
Few projects have generated the enthusiasm that the center shows
for chestnuts, however.
“We’re excited. It’s something
that this state is out ahead on and it’s going to have a good
ride, I think,” Gold says. “It’s
nice to do something hardly anyone else
is doing when you know you’re onto
For more information, write the University of Missouri Center for
Agroforestry, 203 Anheuser-Busch Natural Resources Building, Columbia,
MO 65211; phone (573) 884-2874; or log onto www.centerforagroforestry.org.