The Blacks operate Chestnut Ridge, a 30-acre chestnut orchard in Pike County. The farm’s website is www.chestnutridgeofpikecounty.com
After retiring as a general contractor, Dale, a Pike County native, and his wife, Linda, bought a 160-acre farm in 2000. Between 2001 and 2002, the couple planted more than 3,000 chestnuts or seedlings, and an estimated 2,500 trees survived.
Linda recently chatted during a break from harvesting the nuts. Harvest started Sept. 15 and will end this month.
Chestnuts are harvested by hand after they fall from the trees. The nuts must be collected quickly before they are eaten by deer, rabbits, squirrels, and other wildlife.
Linda estimated the yield is about 2,000 pounds per acre with roughly 100 trees per acre. However, their orchard is fairly young with only a few 12- to 13-year-old chestnut trees that were planted before they bought the property.
The Blacks planted Dunstan chestnut trees that are resistant to fire blight. Blight is an invasive fungal disease that decimated the American chestnut tree population, starting in the early 1900s.
Each September, the Blacks collect the nuts by hand, wearing heavy gloves as protection from the sharp burrs. The Blacks remove the burrs using a machine that Dale built and dubbed a “de-burrer.”
“It makes the process go so much faster,” Linda said. The machine contains several small, spinning wheels. Previously they shucked the nuts by hand.
Typically, a burr contains three chestnuts. After the burrs are removed, the nuts are sorted, sized, graded, sanitized, bagged, weighed, and put into cold storage. The goal is to complete the entire process within seven days after the nut “hits the ground,” Linda said.
Chestnuts are refrigerated to keep the nuts from dehydrating, she added.
Wildlife, especially deer, have been the Blacks’ biggest problem. “We have an extremely high deer population. They love to eat chestnuts as soon as they fall,” Linda said.
The Blacks sell about half their crop through Internet orders; the other half is sold to the Hy-Vee Inc. central distribution market in Iowa. Usually, they sell out by mid-December.
The Blacks have now begun shipping package orders. Prices for individual orders range from $3.50 to $6 a pound, depending on the size of the chestnut and the amount ordered.
“We have a lot of repeat sales,” Linda said. “A lot of people have ties (with chestnuts) to their childhood.”
The Blacks have found chestnuts are popular among many European and Asia cultures. Linda has been contacted by a man who knew 8,000 Koreans who might be interested in the Blacks’ chestnuts, she said.
While people from other cultures are familiar with chestnuts, many Americans don’t know how to prepare the nuts, Linda noted. “I think it’s because the American chestnut tree is nearly extinct,” she said. “We weren’t raised with them.”
Check out Ken Kashian's full gallery on Chestnut Ridge at: