Looking toward a possible commercial future

Philip B. Arnold M.D., the manager of Connecticut’sfirst backcross orchard of American chestnut trees,recalls time spent in the 1930s walking in the woodson land his father bought. By 1950, half-mile walks intothose same woods are still marred by the sight of the nativetrees chewed up at their bases. He asked his dad why theAmerican chestnuts had become such damaged goods.

Sara Fitzsimmons, Northern Appalachian Regional Science Coordinator for The american chestnut foundation, checks the progress of newly established fifth generation chestnut trees.

“That’s a disease,” his father told him.

“Well, why don’t they try to do something about it?”

“They are,” his dad said.

That exchange planted a seed in Arnold’s head that germinated in 2004, when the now-retired physician saw an application from The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF), then joined with a retired neighbor, 92-year-old Bob Gregg, Ph.D., to begin revamping the state chapter. Both on the Woodbridge (Conn.) Land Trust, they convinced the town to free up a 1.5-acre plot for an orchard, which was planted in 2006.

Then, Arnold traveled to Massachusetts. At the time, there were seven orchards there, but he taught others how to prepare and plant the nuts, and how to bag and pollinate. Today, there are 30 American chestnut orchards in Massachusetts. There are seven in Connecticut. “With some sun and dry, acidic soil, they grow like wildfire,” he says.

Whether or not the revival of the American chestnut tree, which produces a smaller, sweeter nut than those largely imported from China or the Mediterranean, spawns a future in national commercial nut production remains to be seen. However, the effort to get producers in line to grow American chestnuts is in motion. Since 1983, through the TACF in Asheville, N.C., and some 15 state chapters, there’s been a concerted effort to crossbreed this once-foundation nut and timber tree that began losing its foothold to blight in the 1870s back into a fruitful existence in the Appalachian forest.

The key is whether the new trees backcrossed with blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts will remain so blight-resistant they’re blight “immune,” as Jere Groff, a board member of the Pennsylvania Nut Growers Association, says.

In Arnold’s grove, he’s seen 80 percent germination, about an average success. Now, four and a half years later, of the 450 to 480 trees planted, 385 remain, each about 17 feet tall.

“I’m hoping in my lifetime [he’s 69] that we’ll see nuts that are the real deal,” Arnold says. “But whether it’s in my lifetime or not, we’re committed. The interest isn’t dying out, it’s growing.”

While there haven’t been many nuts in his orchard, other states are ahead of Connecticut in the revival. Virginia, for example, has 40,000 trees planted. “We won’t see a lot of nut production for maybe 10 to 15 years,” says Arnold. “Maybe one day the tree can begin to distribute itself. That’s the hope anyway.”

A brief history

In its heyday, the American chestnut tree flourished from southern Georgia to southern Maine, and from middle Kentucky up into eastern Ohio. It always produced a dependable nut crop of economic significance, but there never was a viable nut-growing industry for the American chestnut, according to Greg Miller of Empire Chestnut Company in Carrollton, Ohio. “So, I don’t know the prospects of there being one again,” he says.

Before the blight, American chestnuts were harvested from wild trees rather than managed orchards or plantations, with the possible exception of Coleman Sober in Lewisburg, Pa., who grew thousands of trees and produced tons of nuts, though even they were Paragons, a European-American hybrid. The blight cut his operation short in its prime.

The fungal blight, which may have been brought here on Japanese maples, first hit New York. In 1904, a Bronx zoologist cultured the fungus. By 1914, half the American chestnut trees in Pennsylvania were dead or dying. The blight covered 25 to 30 miles of territory a year.

Characteristics of the American chestnut include a long, canoe-shaped leaf and reddish-brown twigs.

Since the chestnut blight, what little commercial chestnut production there has been here is based mainly on Chinese chestnuts (Castanea mollissima). Miller grows tons of Chinese chestnuts, and this past year he and four other growers formed an agricultural cooperative.

“We packed and sold 30,000 pounds this year, which was half of what we produced last year,” he says. “There are other chestnut producers in the U.S., but the industry is still pretty small, and demand far outweighs our collective supply. I guess you could say we are ‘American’ chestnut producers, but we’re not producing ‘American chestnuts.'”

In the 1930s and ’40s, the government attempted a blight-resistance program, but Michael Webb, of TACF’s Pennsylvania chapter, says it wasn’t systematic enough. “It was more of a shotgun approach,” he says. “There was experimentation with crosses, and a hope that the plants would come up resistant, but those involved weren’t plant breeders. They were paper pushers and foresters.”

The TACF’s breeding program crosses a rare surviving American chestnut with a blight-resistant Chinese chestnut. Then the first generation is crossed back with different American chestnuts, cutting the Chinese strain in half. Today, the program’s first trees are one cross from becoming as American a tree as they’ll ever be, about fifteen-sixteenths American.

“You end up with the best hybrids with the best resistance,” Webb says. “They have full Chinese resistance, but no Chinese characteristics, and they’ll look and grow American, but it will take decades to know if we’re right. We’re beginning to distribute trees and nuts for screening. Tens of thousands of trees are planted and carrying through to the next generation.”

Successful techniques

Webb has been growing in his backyard, using biocontrols and slurries of mud packed around the tree’s base. Without intervention, the blight girdles the trees at ground level or a few inches up, and festers with wind and environmental factors.

What will work naturally in the forest? How you attain long-term sustainability and growth as a crop isn’t yet known.

“We can crossbreed in an orchard, and there’s no problem,” says Jim Walizer, 76, of Walizer Farms in Bellefonte, Pa. “But we replant those trees in the forest, then we have a problem.”

The TACF’s New York chapter has begun its own goal-supported genetic engineering of transgenic cells, and they’re “past the bottleneck,” Webb says. “A few years ago, they planted transgenic trees in an orchard, but we don’t know what those trees will look like or do in 30, 40 or 100 years, and, of course, the FDA must approve any nuts before they can be released.”

More plots in more locations allows for diverse evaluation. Each year, about 50 newcomers express an interest, and then endure a picky process of determining who gets sprouted nuts. Chestnut trees are started from seed in late February or early March in a greenhouse, then planted outside in June.

Walizer has farmed 200 acres on three combined smaller farms, and grown corn and grasses for 60 years. The main goal with his orchard is to prove to Pennsylvania farmers that they can make more money farming trees than corn. To do so, like with corn, they need to plant more densely. “If it works with corn, it will work with trees,” he says. “So plant 14,000 to 28,000 trees per acre. We’re going to higher populations.”

Arnold also advises planting densely, then in one and a half years begin selecting the best. Eventually, there would be a reforestation program, the purpose of negotiations with land trusts and conservancies. Pre-1900, the American chestnut represented 25 percent of all New England forest.

There’s an ever-growing list of agencies that are working with state chapters like game commissions, state parks and private industry, too, that are establishing breeding orchards. “We’re taking whatever we can get, saying thank you, and urging people to start planting,” Webb says.

If successful, Webb says a chestnut orchard can be profitable and sustainable, because the American chestnut is fast-growing.

“But all I hear is ‘how soon, how soon?'” Groff says. “Or, I also hear, ‘It takes work. It takes work.’ We’re aware of the challenges, but we’re certainly interested in the American chestnut. Its nuts would be commercially viable.”

Walizer has 2,000 to 3,000 Chinese chestnut trees he’s using for experimentation. He planted his first hybrid orchard of 230 trees in 2002. Today, his crossbreeds include 50 of the sixth-generation backcrosses, the so-called “mother trees” that will produce the nuts for forest distribution. He also has pure Americans, the foundation trees used in the crossbreeding. These are “safety” trees, backups since the crossbreeding isn’t a sure thing.

Walizer Farms’ Chinese chestnuts produced 10,000 nuts two years ago, then just 1,000 this past year. All production in the Northeast was down because of last summer’s drought. “It should be dry, but it can’t be too dry, or else the trees like in this past summer saved themselves and did not produce the next generation,” says Walizer, who is also involved in three plots at Penn State, where most trees are 10 years old, including one orchard of “mother trees.”

Rather than food, Walizer’s interest is developing the chestnut wood for biomass production. He’s using his Chinese trees for trial and error with, say, wood pellets. “We’re making mistakes with my (Chinese) trees,” he says.

Walizer also knows there’s a food need growers can one day help satisfy. With the continued arrival of Asian immigrants in the country, “there’s going to be a bigger market for the chestnut as food,” he says.

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.