Chestnuts once again roasting on open fires, thanks to MSU
For families planning to gather around the fire and roast chestnuts this holiday season, Michigan is the ideal place to be.
The state is ranked No. 1 in the United States for its number of chestnut growers and land, and Michigan State University has played a key role in leading this comeback.
“If it wasn’t for Michigan State, I wouldn’t be growing chestnuts,” said Roger Blackwell, president of Chestnut Growers, Inc. “Dennis Fulbright is really the guy who made it happen. Together, we are literally growing a chestnut tree industry in Michigan.”
Fulbright, professor emeritus in plant, soil and microbial sciences, launched a chestnut research program at the university in 2000 after learning of the frustrations that Michigan growers were facing. Once a thriving U.S. industry in the late 1800s, a fungal infection known as chestnut blight destroyed nearly four billion mature chestnut trees in the early 1900s and prevented chestnut farmers from successfully reproducing on their orchards.
“This assessment of the original orchards – ‘Why weren’t they producing chestnuts?’ -- was the starting point,” Fulbright said. “A lot of people waited six, seven, even eight years with no chestnuts coming off their orchards. That got us really interested.”
MSU discovered which chestnut trees were best adapted to growing conditions in the U.S. After being advised where to purchase these particular trees, growers began to see a significant increase in their production.
Josh Springer is one of many chestnut growers who decided to invest in the industry as a result of MSU’s leadership and consultation. In 2015, he purchased 50 acres of land and has planted chestnut trees in four locations across Michigan.
“I think chestnut growers are seeing that there is less risk involved, in large part because of the MSU researcher,” Springer said. “There are scientific data to back up these claims.”
Springer, who studied chestnut blight with MSU professor Andy Jarosz, recently started a new company called Chestnut Orchard Solutions. In the future, he plans to market Fulbright’s discovery of a blight controlling compound, and make it available to all farmers.
By providing these resources that range from pest management to harvesting methods, MSU has restored confidence in the chestnut industry and transformed the hobby into a profitable business.
“We have people in the industry who think of this as a business and run it as such, and that’s what we need,” said Erin Lizotte, MSU Extension educator. “There’s always a struggle with start-up crops about hobbyists versus commercial growers, and I think people like Roger have really provided that leadership. There are very few industries that have been set up in such a calculated way as chestnuts in Michigan have.”
Following the program’s first-year growth, the MSU Product Center formed its first chestnut grower cooperative, Chestnut Growers, Inc. in 2002. The Clarksville Research Center and the Rogers Reserve in Jackson are also part of MSU’s ongoing research and are focused on the market and processing aspects of the industry respectively.
While chestnut production continues to thrive in Michigan, the increasing demand for this specialty crop has called attention to the need for more growers.
“I could sell a million pounds of chestnuts tomorrow if I had them,” Blackwell said. “The world stage is set for Michigan chestnuts. The only thing lacking is growers willing to establish orchards.”