Iowa Public Television


Growing Chestnuts in Iowa

posted on December 24, 2009

According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, Chestnuts are being grown on more than 3,300 U.S. acres, by some 1,200 producers.

Nevertheless, a study conducted by the University of Nebraska revealed the annual U.S. chestnut harvest amounts to less than 1 percent of total world production. And, America imported nearly 5,000 tons of chestnuts last year, valued at $10.1 million.

It's those kind of numbers along with the product's nutritional value that have producers like Tom Wahl and John Wetterig convinced the chestnut isn't just for Christmas anymore. Jeannie Campbell explains.

Like most farmers, Tom Wahl of Wapello, Iowa relies on the help of his family to bring in the harvest. But Wahl isn't part of the Midwestern monoculture of rotating corn and soybeans. Unlike most of his neighbors , his crop grows on trees.

Tom Wahl, Wapello, Iowa: "Most Americans have never seen a chestnut let alone tasted one and because chestnuts are so different from other nuts when they first try them they're very surprised. Something very unexpected -- unexpected in flavor and texture. Little bit like a baked potato with lots of butter and sour cream. Even that doesn't quite say it. These chestnuts have their own unique flavoring. They taste like a chestnut."

Besides growing chestnuts, Wahl is the Marketing Coordinator and one of the founders of the Prairie Grove Nut Growers Cooperative. With producers in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri, the coop helps its members market the nuts they grow. In 2008, Prairie Grove Nut Growers marketed close to 5 tons of chestnuts.

Tom Wahl, Wapello, Iowa: "The volume allows us access to markets we wouldn't have if we were all trying to sell individually. Most of the stuff we sell is right within Iowa. We do a little bit of mail order business around the country, But the vast majority of or bulk is sold right within Iowa.

While most cities have a Chestnut street, most people know little, if anything, about the tree or nut.

A century ago, Chestnut wood was commonly used in furniture and the nut was an important staple in the American diet. However, a blight that began in 1904 took less than 40 years to all but eradicate the American chestnut. With the loss of trees came a loss of an appreciation and understanding of a nut that on the tree feels and looks more like a baseball sized sand bur than something edible. Realizing that, Wahl's wife and business partner Kathy Dice turned to modern technology to educate people on the value of the chestnut and entice them to try the unique nut by sharing some mouthwatering recipes.

Kathy Dice, http://Red Fern Farm: "We've got the World's Greatest Chocolate Chip Cookies using chestnut flour. That's very good. Chocolate Chestnut Frozen Pie which is also delicious. A recipe for crumb pie crust and chestnut crepes. And, all these are actually using chestnut flour."

Besides tasting delicious, chestnuts are good for you. Often referred to as the un-nut they are high in fiber,low in sodium and cholesterol-free. In fact, Chestnuts are 99% fat free and most of the calories are in the form of carbohydrates.

John Wittrig, Winfield, Iowa: "They're actually called by some people the corn that grows on trees because they're more like corn or soybeans or potatoes than they are like other what we think of as nuts."

John Wittrig was a founding member of the Prairie Grove Nut Growers Cooperative, but because the chestnuts that he grows are organic, he washes, dries, sorts, packages and markets them himself.

John Wittrig, Winfield, Iowa: "We decided to go organic because there are just not that many pests or things that bother chestnuts at all and they bring a premium. So, we're just a little bitty small business, but it's kind of fun."

After retiring from his job as a psychologist with the Veteran's Association, Wittrig started growing chestnuts in 1993, planting 279 trees on three acres. His best crop was in 2008 when he harvested 6,000 pounds of chestnuts.

John Wittrig, Winfield, Iowa: "Our gross was 24,000 dollars last year on three acres. I tell my neighbors, my corn raising neighbors, it's a little bit better than corn per acre anyway. So it's hard to be retired when you have to deal with 6000 pounds of chestnuts and do something with them"

Gathering the nuts is as easy as rolling a wire basket over them once they've fallen to the ground. If the chestnuts fall to the ground still in the bur, harvesting is a little trickier. In that case heavy leather gloves or stepping on them is required to free the meaty morsels from their prickly shell. Preparation is as easy as baking them on a cookie sheet in a thin layer of water for 10 minutes.

Tom McPhail, Grandson: "And you have to split them open first otherwise they'll exploded. Which is exciting but doesn't do well for cooking chestnuts."

And if you don't have 10 minutes you can split them, then zap them in the microwave for 20 seconds.

Tom McPhail, Grandson: "This is a -- this is a normal dinner for us here roasted chestnuts, raw chestnuts, and chestnut spread. Complete nutrition."

Thanks to Mel Torme and Nat King Cole, most people associate Chestnuts with Christmas, but Tom Wahl and John Wittrig are convinced that they could be a so much more.

John Wittrig, Winfield, Iowa: "The only thing that Americans remember about the chestnut is the song "Chestnut's Roasting on an Open Fire," but in all parts of the world they don't wait until Christmas to eat chestnuts. They eat them when they're ripe."

Tags: agriculture chestnuts Iowa news nuts