Chestnuts at Red Fern Farm

Tom Wahl talks to field day group about chestnuts at Red Fern Farm. Photo courtesy of Red Fern Farm.

Tom Wahl talks to field day group about chestnuts at Red Fern Farm. Photo courtesy of Red Fern Farm.

Red Fern Farm is a nursery and tree farm in southeast Iowa where Tom Wahl and Kathy Dice raise fruit, berry and nut crops. Chestnuts are one of the farm’s most marketable crops. Due to high demand, Wahl has become a chestnut broker for other growers in his area.

Greater crop diversity increases resiliency in the face of weather extremes. Diversity also reduces the number and severity of pest and disease outbreaks, and spreads the workload through an extended growing season.
— Tom Wahl

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Farm & Farmer Background Read
Management Overview Read
Marketing and Economics Read
Goals Read
Lessons Learned Read
Other Related Information Read


Farm & Farmer Background

Tom Wahl and Kathy Dice produce a variety of trees and plant products at Red Fern Farm near Wapello, Iowa. The couple both have conservation backgrounds. They started their farm in 1987 and currently manage 15 acres. For several years, they raised small livestock for market (pasture-raised chickens, turkeys and goats), but over time, the farm has come to concentrate on nut and fruit crops well suited to midwestern growing conditions. They mostly depend on family labor.

Nut crops at Red Fern Farm include chestnuts, hybrid hazelnuts, hardy northern pecans and heartnut. Fruits include native persimmon, pawpaw and aronia berry, apples, peaches, apricots, plums, cherries, blueberries, blackberries, kiwi fruit and Asian pear. Medicinal forest plants that they grow and market include green dragon and goldenseal.

During the growing season, Wahl and Dice hold regular field days where small groups of visitors learn about different crops and sample refreshments that feature Red Fern Farm products, such as pawpaw ice cream.

Chestnuts at Red Fern Farm

Chestnuts are one of the most important cash crops grown on Red Fern Farm. Chestnuts are a nutritious, high-value crop with a growing demand, worldwide and in the U.S. Their nutritional makeup is similar to brown rice, a high quality protein that is low in fat, high in fiber, complex carbohydrates and vitamin C.

Chestnuts require well-drained, slightly acidic soil, and grow over a wide range of typical Midwestern conditions in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 4-9. According to Wahl, they tend to do best in “timber soils,” soils that formed under woodlands, rather than prairie soils that are generally higher in organic matter. Wahl starts most of his chestnut trees as seed.

When it comes to chestnuts, it’s all about quality, says Wahl. He has tried different species and hybrids, but now mostly depends on a Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollisima) that produces high-quality, flavorful nuts, and is not susceptible to the blight that plagues native American chestnut trees.

The market is currently dominated by international customers, but as Americans learn how good chestnuts can taste, he predicts the market will continue to grow. The demand for chestnuts exceeds the supply Red Fern Farm can provide. As a result, Wahl has become a chestnut broker, providing a marketing outlet for other chestnut growers from a wide area.


Management Overview

Red Fern Farm is not organically certified, but Wahl avoids synthetic pesticides as much as possible. When necessary, he does use sprays such as copper and pyrethrum. He has to use deer repellent on most of his crops, except for pawpaw and spicebush that provide their own natural repellents. One of the most effective deer repellents is one he mixes himself, a simple filtered egg mixture of a dozen eggs to 5 gallons of water, which he says is effective for exactly two weeks, rain or shine, and then has to be reapplied. It can be used on anything deer will eat. The mix is not effective against rabbits, which are deterred by plastic guards around the base of plantings.

Wahl tried using an electric 3D fence to keep out deer, but after about a year, the deer learned how to circumvent the fence. He also tried keeping a dog inside the fence to discourage deer, but that did not work, either, though he says one might be successful with the right dog, properly trained .

Equipment costs are kept low at Red Fern Farm. Major pieces of farm equipment include a two-cycle engine gas posthole augur, small tractor and mower.

Over most of the farm, trees and bushes are spaced in rows 10 x 10 feet apart to accommodate mowing equipment. As with many of the trees grown at Red Fern Farm, it is important for chestnut establishment to minimize plant/grass competition after planting for three to five years. Once trees are well established, mowing is generally necessary only at harvest time when ground cover must be kept short so nuts are easy to find and pick up.

Ideally, chestnuts should be harvested from the ground every day to prevent them from drying out and to reduce loss to wildlife. At Red Fern Farm, chestnuts are harvested using a low-tech, hand-harvesting roller called a “nut wizard” that is available in different sizes. Wahl says producers can manage chestnuts without chemicals or expensive machines. He has tried an expensive mechanical harvester, but found rollers to be as effective and lower cost.

Handling and storage of chestnuts is relatively simple, though it is critically important to do correctly. Chestnuts have to be harvested promptly and put in refrigeration under high humidity.  The nuts should not be stored in containers holding more than 25 lbs or they will start heating up and spoiling, even in refrigeration, since they continue to “breathe” after harvest (giving off carbon dioxide and generating heat that needs to escape). Wahl notes that in the future new safety requirements from the Food and Drug Administration may require the nuts to be rinsed in a disinfectant.  Chestnuts can be shipped without refrigeration as long as it is just a few days.  Shipping them overseas usually does not work out well, which is why imported chestnuts in American grocery stores are often moldy on arrival.

Chestnut-related labor is concentrated during the harvest season from mid-September to late October. Chestnuts are picked from the ground after they naturally fall out of husks known as “burs.” If picked before they drop, the spiny burs have to be physically removed, which is very labor intensive. The burs hang on the tree for a couple of days after dropping their nuts. So far, Wahl has not found a commercial market for chestnut burs, but he has used them for compost and as a natural deterrent for pests that avoid their prickly texture.

Wahl estimates that one person can manage around 10 acres of chestnuts. He says that growers can expect trees in the Midwest to produce 1,00-4,000 pounds of harvested nuts/acre by 15 years on a good site, depending on management factors, such as irrigation and fertilization.

Adequate soil moisture is important for maximizing nut crop production. Wahl is installing an irrigation system in 2013 after he discovered that a heavy rain just as chestnuts started bearing in 2012 increased the nuts one full size, compared to the size of nuts the trees had been producing for the previous decade. The result was about 50% more pounds for the same number of nuts, and the value of each pound was about 50% higher since larger nuts are worth more per pound than smaller nuts. Larger nuts are also easier to harvest.

Wahl says, “If irrigation may make the difference between $8,000 per acre, instead of $4,000,” says Wahl: “I ask, how can you afford not to irrigate?”

To improve soil management and provide fertility, Wahl grows cover crops, including comfrey, rhubarb, horseradish, asparagus, white clover for nitrogen and turf-type grasses.

Wahl often plants chestnuts, pawpaws and other trees in integrated “stacking” systems that take advantage of different plants’ complementary requirements for sun, shade and nutrients. Pawpaws, for example, like partial shade and slightly acidic soil in the same range as chestnuts, so they are a good understory tree to pair with chestnuts. Pawpaws are easy to grow, says Wahl, and they have natural pesticidal characteristics.


Marketing and Economics

At Red Fern Farm, marketing varies for different crops. Wahl and Dice spend little on advertising, since word-of-mouth customers provide adequate income. They do, however, maintain an active website and online product catalog, they write an annual newsletter with advice and product information, and they hold small-group field events during the growing season.

Chestnuts are the crop Wahl finds easiest to sell. There is a strong interest in chestnuts, especially from Eastern European and Asian communities who grew up valuing chestnuts as a favorite food. Wahl has a waiting list of such customers who will pay well for high-quality chestnuts. He takes orders of up to 2,500 pounds at a time.

To help address the demand, he has become a chestnut broker, buying and processing nuts from other producers. Wahl believes that “it will take centuries” before U.S. growers could meet existing demand, and “if demand continues to grow as it has been, there is no possibility we will ever be able to meet the demand.”

 The chestnuts are sorted into three different sizes and bagged in 25 pound bags. The price varies according to the size. In 2012-2013, wholesale prices for growers in the Midwest averaged $2.25 per pound, or around $5.50 per pound for certified organic nuts.

Most customers pick their chestnuts up at Red Fern Farm, some coming from as far as 250 miles away. So far, Wahl has been selling 90% of his chestnuts in Iowa. Hel sold 21,000 pounds of chestnuts in 2011. When customers come to buy chestnuts, they often make other purchases.

Wahl does not participate in USDA incentive or price assurance programs. He says that he could buy crop insurance, if he could prove a crop history, but he has not participated in USDA programs so far.

Goals at Early Boots Farm

  •  “We are pretty passionate about the role of trees in sustainable agriculture,” says Tom Wahl, about his farming objectives.
  • “Besides making a living ourselves and caring for our land and water, we want to provide practical information to others who are looking for sustainable farming options that can make as much or more money than corn and soybeans,” says Wahl.  To promote agroforesttry options to other practitioners and agricultural educators, Red Fern Farm is a Mid-American Agroforestry Working Group (MAAWG) partner.

Lessons Learned

  • “The cliché ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,’ is good advice,” says Wahl. He explains that extremes of heat, cold, rain, snow, ice, wind and drought affect different tree crops differently, according to the crop and the timing of the event. A hard frost on May 1st may damage an apple crop, but leave chestnuts unharmed. The same temperature on May 20th could ruin the chestnut crop, but leave apples unfazed. The greater the number of different kinds of crops you grow, the less likely it is that an extreme weather event will wipe out all of your crops.
  • The benefits of greater crop diversity are not limited to resiliency in the face of weather extremes. A greater number of different kinds of plants on the landscape have been shown to dramatically reduce the number and severity of pest and disease outbreaks. This, in turn, will both increase the size of the harvest while reducing the cost of production.
  • Another important benefit of crop diversity is to distribute the workload across the season. Raspberries, blackberries and gooseberries are ready in June and July. Aronia berries are harvested early to mid-August. Hazels are picked mid-August to mid-September. Chestnut and pawpaw harvest runs from mid-September to late October, and persimmon harvest may last all the way through November.

Other Related Information

  • Growing Chestnuts in Missouri. By Ken Hunt, Michael Gold, William Reid and Michele Warmund. University of Missouri Extension Publication AP1007-2012, produced by the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry. 16 pp. Includes table of establishment costs and growers’ calendar. Download copy (6.9 MB) at http://extension.missouri.edu/explorepdf/agguides/agroforestry/af1007.pdf.
  •  Chestnuts. Web resources at Michigan State University, include information on establishment, care and harvesting. At http://chestnuts.msu.edu/
  •  Plantra – Tree-planting products, including tree tubes, weed barrier, and other planting accessories. At www.plantra.com or 800-951-3806.

– July 2013.  Case study created by Ann Y. Robinson for the Mid-American Agroforestry Working Group.