A retired lawyer and a retired accountant plant 1000 chestnut trees in Lawrence, KS. What may sound like the set-up to a bad joke is actually the origin story to Chestnut Charlie’s, a 20-acre chestnut farm owned and operated by Charlie NovoGradac and Debbie Milks.
“My father had been in the Christmas tree business and did some landscape trees,” NovoGradac said. “We also loved walnut trees and we thought chestnuts might be a different kind of walnut. Kind of plant them and forget them until you come back to gather the nuts. It turned out that chestnut trees are really quite a lot of work and a lot more challenging.”
Outside the United State’s native chestnut region - the woodlands that stretch from Maine to Mississippi - the couple has had to navigate challenges brought on by their location.
“Our soils are not really the best suited for chestnuts,” NovoGradac said. “The Chinese Chestnut seems to tolerate our soil. The pH of soil required by chestnuts should be medium acid where ours is more neutral, so they aren't ideally suited. Plus the weather is quite variable here.”
While chestnuts tend to blossom in June, late spring freezes can still impact trees by freezing off foliage.
“It takes a lot of energy out of the trees,” NovoGradac said. “The cold hardiness of the Chinese Chestnut is quite variable, so many trees do suffer freeze damage over the winter time.”
Unlike the area’s more common pecan, chestnuts are a yearly crop with minimal requirements for harvest.
“Even on a small acreage, handling by hand, we can be profitable,” NovoGradac said. “We don't need to invest in large tractors and we don't need to invest in tree shakers or nut-gatherers like pecan growers must.”
The couple has been following organic practices since they planted the first tree, and the farm has been certified organic since 1998. While this practice was born out of their personal beliefs about the use of synthetic chemicals, it has had the added benefit of keeping input costs low.
“We don’t provide any chemical fertilizers,” NovoGradac said. “We grow cover crops to feed the plants and we hire local labor to pick up the chestnuts in the fall. So it may take 12 to 15 years to get into the business, but the profit margin is substantial and the per acre return is pretty substantial.”
The couple stays busy between harvest seasons. Continual mowing keeps the ground ready for harvest, and trees are pruned and thinned to allow for optimal growing conditions.
“We planted at a higher density than would be ideal for normal trees,” NovaGradac said. “The normal density planting recommended is 40 feet by 40 feet. We planted about double that density expecting we would get an earlier, heavier crop, and then we would remove trees as they begin to crowd.”
The couple also spends time building and maintaining equipment for harvest season. Carts, field sanitation stations for separating burrs and nuts, and sizers with a color coordination system are just a few examples of things that have been made on-farm.
Harvest starts when the chestnuts start to fall, typically sometime in mid-September, and lasts around four to five weeks. One tree will usually drop nuts for 10 to 14 days.
“We practice clean harvest,” Milks said. “We ask our harvesters to pick up everything - a bad nut, a split nut, a small nut, a mouse-eaten nut - we want all of them and dispose of the crop waste. Just so we don't set up a cycle where the pests could come in.”
Once nuts are picked up off the orchard floor, they are separated from the burrs and floated in water to check for invisible defects. They then pass through an inspection station and sizer before being bagged in 30lb increments and moved to the cooler.
“Something that's really unique about chestnuts compared to any other nut is that they're not shelfstable,” Milks said. “We always say they're not ice cream, but you sure don't want to just let them sit unrefrigerated. They'll get moldy or they'll get hard or both. One of the challenges is educating produce people. You know in the fall they'll have the hazelnuts and the pecans and walnuts out for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the chestnuts sort of need to be stored with the mushrooms.”
When they first started, the couple had trouble finding people to buy their product. Today, it's rare they have anything left in the cooler past the end of November. They’ve found success in Asian-American markets, where the chestnut has remained a part of recipes and culture.
“So many of our customers have grown up with chestnuts and because of the absence of good chestnuts in the market, they're just delighted to find us,” NovoGradac said.
The quality of their product has also opened up opportunities.
“About half our crop goes to Whole Foods in Denver, to the distribution center there,” Milks said. “They've got a different demographic of buyer or customer, so they tend to be later, when people are thinking of chestnut stuffing and things like that.”
Outside their Whole Foods contract and niche markets, the couple has spent time educating consumers and working to reintegrate chestnuts into the American diet. They spent years at farmers markets and grocery stores providing demos and samples.
“When we're at the farmer's market, we're not just selling chestnuts. We're talking stories and most people want to tell you their story. They went to Paris and they had chestnuts roasted on a braiser on a curb, or they were in Rome or there's some story like that. And so when they come to us and say ‘you're just like them,’ it’s reaffirming. But it's very unusual to find people that are homegrown with chestnuts.”
One customer at a time, they’re bringing the chestnut back to Americans.
“I cannot wait for the day when somebody is in Paris and they go buy a little bag of chestnuts and they say ‘you know, the first time I had a chestnut was in Lawrence, Kansas,’” Milks said.