300 and Counting: A Story of Chestnuts and Diversity

By: Andrew Smith, Michigan Ag Council Ambassador

Second only to California, Michigan’s agriculture community is known for its diversity, giving a home to over 300 unique crops and livestock. However, Michigan growers don’t take second place sitting down: our farmers grow for the gold! That’s why Michigan agriculture continues to expand into new commodities to make the most of our state’s unique climate and geography as well as meet the needs and demand of our local communities. 

No agricultural community is fresher in age and quality than the Michigan chestnut industry! Chestnut Growers, Inc., a processing and marketing cooperative made up of 34 Michigan chestnut growers, was established in 2002. At first glance, 19 years may seem like a long time, but in terms of establishing a new crop, especially for one that takes ten years to reach maturity, the industry is still in its infancy. To put it into perspective, Michigan’s blueberry industry has been around for almost 90 years and our other recently organized industry, cranberries, has been around for 30!

Roger Blackwell has been active in the Michigan chestnut industry since 1990. He uses his growing and marketing expertise in his many industry leadership roles within Chestnut Growers of America, Chestnut Growers, Inc., and Treeborn (a chestnut flour and chip manufacturer).

Roger Blackwell, a first-generation chestnut farmer and president of Chestnut Growers, Inc. and Chestnut Growers of America, shared with me his journey of founding Michigan’s chestnut industry. In 1990, he purchased 25 acres in Vermontville to be used for chestnut production in partnership with his father and brother-in-law. The operation has since expanded to 53 acres and relocated to a more productive area in Oceania County. Western Michigan is a perfect location to grow chestnuts because of its highly acidic, sandy loam soils, good drainage, and the lake effect from Lake Michigan that delays frosts and brings rain at crucial times. Our lakes and unique soils allow for much of the diversity in our state!

Despite its youth, Michigan is currently the number one state in chestnut production! With over 50 producers growing shy of one million pounds on 700 acres, our local growers have produced for Michigan communities, the Midwest, and even Mexico. Yet there is a lot of room for growth! Blackwell mentions that if he had another million chestnuts, he could sell them at the snap of his fingers. “I have markets that used to buy Italian chestnuts all the time. Now they want our Michigan grown chestnuts from Chestnut Growers, Inc. because we keep them fresher than Italy’s.”  

Can you find the chestnuts? While on the tree, chestnuts can be found within spiny husks. Chestnuts are a biannual crop in Michigan, meaning you will only find and harvest them every other year.

While the cooperative waits for their growers’ saplings to mature into production, the industry is working to overcome challenges in pest control, water and nutrient management, harvest technology, and support and education for new growers. Blackwell uses his experience and retailer relationships to overcome the gap in consumer knowledge of this rising commodity. “The majority of the American public does not know chestnuts. My organization and I’s goal is to reach out to people. Many people think chestnuts taste like a nut, but it’s really doesn’t: it tastes like a squash or a sweet potato when it is roasted.” Blackwell relayed that chestnuts can be made into a variety of products and dishes including chips, flour, soups, and pastries. Along with being tasty and versatile, chestnuts are also healthy, having about half the calories and lowest fat content compared to any other nut!

Every Christmas season we hear Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra tell us the story of chestnuts “roasting on an open fire,” but now Michiganders can be a part of that story by purchasing locally grown chestnuts at their grocery stores and farmers markets. You can start by visiting www.chestnuts.msu.edu and https://www.chestnutgrowersinc.com for more information on chestnut production and recipes. With the help of supportive consumers and innovative farmers like those growing chestnuts, we may one day beat California and claim the title of the most agriculturally diverse state!

Chestnuts can be eaten fresh or as an ingredient. Delicious and locally sourced recipes like these can be found at https://www.chestnutgrowersinc.com.

Bio: Andrew Smith of Bay Port is serving as a 2020-2021 Michigan Ag Council Ambassador. He is currently a junior at Michigan State University pursuing degrees in Non-formal Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources Education as well as Agribusiness Management, and is involved in MSU Collegiate Farm Bureau, AFNR Education Club, and Honors College. Andrew hopes to continue to advocate for agriculture in his future through a career of agriculture policy.