Valley Bounty: Big River Chestnuts

Published December 10, 2022 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

Seeding the Future

Sunderland farm helps grow a collaborative new industry

“Think about this – on a somewhat degraded hillside in the northeast, we could grow a staple carbohydrate to use like corn or wheat,” says Jono Neiger, owner of Big River Chestnuts. “And instead of importing it from the Midwest, farmers could capture those earnings locally.”

Chestnuts have captured Neiger’s imagination – for their ecological and farm income benefits as well as their culinary potential. Big River Chestnuts is out to prove perennial nut tree farming is viable, and to accelerate its adoption on local farms.

Big River Chestnuts grows several species of nut and fruit trees on around 7.5 acres in Sunderland. Chestnuts are the focus and the farm’s financial anchor, with elderberry and aronia shrubs and their medicinally potent berries as secondary cash crops. Using a strategy known as alley-cropping, different species are interplanted in parallel rows, with larger trees spaced to allow shorter plants to thrive between and beneath them. Some years they’ve also grazed chickens through the understory in mobile enclosures.

This “multi-layered farming system,” as he puts it, is informed by Neiger’s experience as both a farmer and an ecological designer. He also founded and currently serves as lead designer at Regenerative Design Group, which offers design and planning services to farmers and landowners throughout the region.

The regal American Chestnut was once a dominant species in northeast forests before a fungal blight decimated their population in the mid-1900s. While foresters are focused on their reintroduction, for agriculture farmers are turning to blight resistant varieties hybridized from North American and Asian species. These trees are smaller, mature quicker and yield more nuts.

Chestnut trees take several years to reach full production, but when they do, the benefits to farmers and the land are significant. “You don’t need to replant each year, which saves cost and labor,” says Neiger. “Then there’s great potential for planting on hillsides and farms with poorer soils, and still getting abundant harvest off that land.”

“Growing more chestnuts, which are a staple carbohydrate crop, could really decrease the amount of grain we import to the region,” he adds, noting that varieties can yield 2,000-3,000 pounds of nuts per acre. Perennial farming also doesn’t require tilling, which promotes soil health and might help sequester carbon in the soil, beyond what’s locked up in the trees.

Given this rosy picture, why aren’t more local farmers growing chestnuts? “One barrier is familiarity,” says Neiger. “It’s just different to farm trees, especially nut trees.” Tree farming also requires investments of time and money to get started – two things farmers have little of. Equipment to process nuts for sale and a stable market of hungry customers are also needed.

One solution for farmers is to start small, planting a few trees each year. There are also increasing opportunities for grant funding to defray costs, especially for farmers seeking technical and planning

advice. Nationally, the US Department of Agriculture and Natural Resource Conservation Service offer some support. Locally, Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) is another source of funding and connections.

In his role at Regenerative Design Group, Neiger is often the technical advisor contracted to assist new nut farmers. With perspective from all sides of this nascent industry, he is molding Big River Chestnuts into a proof-of-concept farm.

“We’re bringing in farmers, extension agents and the public to show what this actually looks like,” he says. “It’s a real example on the ground – we’re not just talking about it.”

When it’s time to sell the harvest, Big River Chestnuts removes the spiky husk and sells chestnuts fresh. This requires minimal equipment, and so far they have plenty of customers clamoring for just the nuts themselves. Soon he’ll apply for grant funding for larger processing equipment to serve Big River Chestnuts and other local growers, positioning them as a natural hub for farmers to process and market their chestnuts collaboratively. He calls this piece of his vision the “Woodlanders Field and Forest Food Hub.”

Already, the small world of northeast nut farming is a collaborative place. “There’s a lot of excitement and sharing of resources and information,” Neiger says. “It’s a network that’s not competitive or secretive.”

Carr’s Ciderhouse in Hadley is one local collaborator experimenting with chestnuts. Another is Forestopia in Shutesbury, who themselves aggregate the harvest of several New England growers. Since Big River Chestnuts sold their whole harvest at their Chestnut Festival in October, Forestopia is supplying the nuts for Big River’s on-farm pop-up markets every Sunday in December at 195 River Road in Sunderland.

Neiger suggests enjoying chestnuts roasted, peeling off their deep brown skin to expose the surprisingly buttery nut within. Visitors can try freshly roasted nuts at their pop-up markets, and buy more to take and roast themselves.

“A lot of the chestnuts you buy in stores are imported from Europe with diminished quality,” Neiger says. “We’re trying to show people what high-quality local chestnuts taste like and how to use them, whether eaten straight or added to soups, stuffing, or other dishes.”

“The next steps in processing would be shelling, drying and milling them into flour,” he continues. That requires more machinery, which fewer farms have, but expands culinary possibilities to baked goods, pasta, and more – all gluten free.

“There’s an exciting relearning and experimentation process happening as chestnuts are more available to chefs, bakers, and home cooks,” Neiger says, noting the proliferation of chestnut cookbooks and resources online.

He’s also excited about the future of Big River Chestnuts, as they start negotiating long-term leases with other landowners and talking with investors about purchasing more land to grow on.

“As part of that, we’re hoping to create a mentoring system to teach folks that want to plant more perennial crops the needed skills,” Neiger says. “Maybe in the future they’ll take on managing some of the planting’s we’ve started.”

“My goal is not to farm a thousand acres of chestnuts,” he adds. Instead, he aims to seed the industry and pass the baton to others.

“We already have an amazing local food scene. I see perennial crops, especially nut crops like chestnuts, as the next step, and I think we’re just waking up to the potential.”