Restoration effort: The rebirth of the American chestnut

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In about 10 years,Virginia Chestnurs 1,000 trees will be fully mature, and should each produce 50 to 100 pounds of nuts a year. Photo by Stephen Barling In about 10 years,Virginia Chestnurs 1,000 trees will be fully mature, and should each produce 50 to 100 pounds of nuts a year. Photo by Stephen Barling

Nestled in Nelson County’s Lovingston hill country lie the orchards of one of the East Coast’s newest nut-growing operations, Virginia Chestnuts. Spanning 45 acres, the farmstead rests at the end of an isolated stretch of unpaved backroads that culminate in a steeply winding mile-long gravel driveway. Overlooking a series of knolls carved into the mountainside stands David and Kim Bryant’s Dutch Colonial-style farmhouse. Gazing out from its wraparound porch, the wind-blustered tops of more than 1,500 adolescent chestnut trees give way to a hollow brimming with oaks, walnuts, sycamores, maples and poplars. Like a foreshortened highway, the canopy corridors westward toward a horizon of Blue Ridge Mountains.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” says Kim, a 54-year-old New Jersey native, almost shouting as I follow her down the driveway into the upper orchard. “We visited this property a little over 15 years ago and fell head over heels in love. We knew right away this was where we were going spend our retirement.”

It’s mid-October, and the chestnut harvest is in full swing—hence the noise. Patiently steering his John Deere tractor through row after row of trees, David, also 54, tows a harvester under the limbs and surrounding grass, gathering bushels of nuts. About as wide as the tractor and low to the ground, the implement looks like something you’d spot scooping up golf balls at a driving range, and operates basically the same way.

“The thing about chestnuts is, they aren’t ripe until they’ve fallen from the tree,” says Kim. “And once they’re on the ground, to ensure maximum freshness, you want to get them up immediately.” Harvest season runs from late September through October.

Wielding a red five-gallon bucket and a handheld picker reminiscent of a rolling cylindrical cooking wisp affixed to a broom handle, Kim joins her 12-year-old son, Houston. Shuffling along behind the tractor, they gather the hard-to-reach nuts manually. “The harvester grabs most of them, but some get kind of buried, and you have to dig those out by hand,” says Houston. “When it’s quiet, it can drive you a little crazy, ’cause you’ll be walking along and hear more of them falling right behind you. You just have to be patient and keep going.”

David (above) and Kim Bryant bought their 45-acre Nelson County farmstead in 2002, with the hopes of nurturing a viable chestnut-growing operation. Photo by Stephen Barling

From the orchard, the nuts are brought into a large packing and processing shed and run through the peeler, an automated, industrial-sized device that removes their leathery dark-brown shells. “After that, we package them in little burlap bags and store them in special humidity-controlled refrigeration units to ensure freshness,” says David. From there, orders are taken online, and the nuts are shipped to restaurants, individuals and retailers ranging from down the street to Maine and the coasts of Florida.

After the harvest, around the first of November, the Bryants had gathered more than 4,000 pounds of chestnuts. By December 17, aside from a small cache saved for personal consumption and developing value-added products like flour and chestnut butter, the nuts had all been sold.

“It’s a pretty grueling couple of months,” David admits. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Wipeout

What makes the success of the Bryants and other orchardists so remarkable is the fact that, prior to 1984, the trees they’re growing didn’t exist—at least not properly. In fact, just under 70 years ago, the American chestnut tree had very nearly been wiped from the face of the Earth.

“What happened was, American orchard growers started importing Chinese chestnut trees around the turn of the 20th century and, in doing so, accidentally introduced a virulent pathogenic fungus to the native population,” says Tom Saielli, science coordinator for the American Chestnut Foundation’s Mid-Atlantic region. Headquartered in Charlottesville, Saielli is responsible for overseeing ACF research orchards and planting teams in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia and Kentucky.   

While the Asiatic varieties had developed a natural resistance to the fungus, American trees were highly susceptible. Known as the chestnut blight, it enters a tree through a wound in the bark. Killing vascular tissues, the blight chokes off nutrient supplies above the point of infection, causing rot and ultimately toppling the tree. First detected in the Bronx Zoo in 1904, by 1950 the fungus had decimated the U.S. population.

“We went from having, like, 4 billion mature chestnut trees to zero in less than half a century,” says Saielli, his voice thick with grief. What he means by mature is, while the vast majority of American chestnuts were killed outright, an estimated 400,000 survived.

“That number surprises people,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘Hey, that means the trees didn’t die out after all.’ And that’s true. But those trees are really just shoots growing from the stumps of living root systems, which will never mature, because they’re still susceptible to the blight. There are no sexually mature pure American chestnut trees in the wild.”

And thus, no chestnuts.   

Food chain

Spanning north to south from Maine to lower Mississippi, and east to west from the Atlantic coastline to the Appalachian Mountains and Ohio Valley, the American chestnut tree was once the keystone species of East Coast forests. Reaching nearly 10 feet in diameter and standing upward of 100 feet tall with canopies equally as wide, the trees were impressive and more abundant than oaks.

“In some areas, the American chestnut comprised as much as 30 percent of the forest,” says Saielli. “In terms of historical importance, the trees were the quintessential American species. They held an unparalleled position in our culture.”

In wild forests, American chestnuts were the single most important source of food for wildlife along the East Coast. Meanwhile, the trees were lauded by gastronomists and restaurateurs as producers of the finest chestnuts in the world, celebrated by farmers for their capacity to nourish livestock (both as raw nuts and as milled feeds) and cherished by lumberjacks, carpenters and furniture-makers for their strong, straight-grained wood.

“On one hand, it was a particularly valuable tree commercially, because it grew faster than oak,” says Troy Coppage, president of 187-year-old Madison-based furniture company, E.A. Clore Sons, Inc. Specializing in fine handmade furniture, Coppage says his forebearers worked with the wood often. “It was rich in tannins, which made it extremely resistant to decay. It didn’t have the radial grain pattern of other hardwoods. And it was abundant.” All of which made the American chestnut incredibly popular.

“At this point, the only way you’ll get the wood is by salvaging it from old homes or buildings,” says Coppage.

And by about the time Nat King Cole turned 30, roasting American chestnuts on an open fire was an impossibility.

Then something miraculous happened. In 1983, inspired by the discoveries of various horticultural geneticists, the American Chestnut Foundation formed with the intention of restoring the iconic tree to the forest.

Photo by Stephen Barling

One such figure was Florida-based botanist Robert T. Dunstan. Fueled by his success using backcross breeding to save French grapevines from a bacterial pathogen known as Pierce’s Disease in the 1930s, by the early 1960s, Dunstan had developed a similar program for chestnuts. The discovery came about after a friend sent him clippings from one of the last standing American chestnut trees, which he then grafted to root-stock and crossed with Chinese trees hoping the latter would pass on their genes for blight resistance, and thereby create a blight-resistant hybrid with American characteristics.

Five years later, when the hybrids reached sexual maturity, Dunstan backcrossed his best specimens with their American parents. Inoculating the resultant saplings with blight, he culled the group, selecting only those with the highest blight-resistant characteristics for additional backcross breeding.

By the early ’80s, Dunstan had achieved his goal: His Florida orchard was chock-full of nut-bearing, blight-resistant chestnut trees exhibiting mostly American traits. And it is this tree—known as the Dunstan chestnut—that is now being grown by most commercial chestnut orchardists in America, including the Bryants.

“They have the sweet, hardy flavor of an American nut but aren’t as big as the Chinese varieties,” says David Bryant. “And they don’t yield as much as the Chinese trees either. But it’s that true American taste we’re after. That’s what’s important.”

Culinary reintroductions aside, with its focus on restoring true American chestnut trees to the wild, the ACF took the backcross breeding methods even further. “In our orchards, we continued the backcrossing process for another seven generations, until we got a tree retaining no Chinese characteristics whatsoever beyond blight resistance,” says Saielli. Aside from the resistance, the genes of these trees are in every way identical to what you’d find in a sample gleaned from the 1700s. This, Saielli says, “should enable the trees to compete and re-establish themselves in their natural setting.” (Whereas the Dunstan chestnut, which still exhibits some Chinese characteristics, would inevitably be outcompeted in the wild.)

While the first such location was established in Meadowview, Virginia, southwest of Roanoke, there are now three backcross orchards within a half-hour drive of Charlottesville, and another half-dozen within an hour. The orchards are located on private property and, due to the associated costs of maintenance, typically that of an estate.

With each generation of trees taking between five to 10 years to reach sexual maturity, the backcrossing process has been painstakingly slow. Now, 30 years later, the first blight-resistant pure American chestnut trees are finally being reintroduced to the forest. To date, the ACF has established more than 680 planting locations on a total of 1,883 acres of public and private land. And according to Saielli, that’s just the beginning.

“Our oldest orchards are now producing trees that are ready for the wild and, as the newer ones catch up, we’ll be scaling up planting operations accordingly,” he says. “Ten years from now, that will be our primary focus. In 30 years, we’ll have planted tens of thousands of acres.”

Growing up

“We bought this land in 2002 knowing we wanted to use it for agricultural production, but had no set specific idea about what that would entail,” says David Bryant, a former software entrepreneur. “Then I stumbled upon an article about growing chestnut trees. When I showed it to Kim, she got really excited. We did some additional research and realized this was it. We were going to grow chestnuts.”

After two years of prepping and planning, the couple planted a five-acre experimental crop of 100 chestnut trees in spring 2004. At first, the endeavor was pretty rocky—within a couple of seasons, the deer had basically killed off the plantings.

“It was a blow, but we decided to stay the course,” says Kim. “We did some more research and followed up by planting another thousand trees in 2007.”

Aided by protective sheathing and other improvements, the Bryants’ saplings survived. A year later, inspired by their success, another 400 plantings were added, increasing the orchard to 23 acres. Looking ahead, the couple invested in $25,000 worth of harvesting and storage equipment. By 2013, the trees were set to produce their first sellable nuts.

However, Mother Nature intervened again when cicadas ravaged everything. “The damage was extensive and led to the loss of both 2013’s and 2014’s crop,” says David. “For a while, we were holding our breath. We didn’t know if the trees were going to pull through. But in 2015, they bounced back, which was a tremendous relief.”

That year, the Bryants harvested 8,000 pounds of chestnuts. In 2016, despite heavy May rains that left many of their blossoms unpollinated, the trees performed similarly. This year, a late frost that damaged early spring blossoms, combined with a summer drought, more than halved production.

“The weather can be a finicky ally,” shrugs Kim. “But at this point, the trees are well-established and will start regularizing and producing more as they mature and grow tougher.”

The Bryants’ farm. Photo by Stephen Barling

In about 10 years, the Bryants’ trees will be fully mature. In addition to being hardier and less susceptible to weather and pests, they each should produce 50 to 100 pounds of nuts a year. By then, the orchard will have been thinned to around 1,000 trees. Low-balling the estimate, that’s 50,000 pounds of chestnuts a year. Considering the nuts sell for a retail price of $8 per pound, the economics are attractive, to say the least.

“Those numbers certainly have us excited,” says Laura Brown, director of the Local Food Hub, which serves as Virginia Chestnut’s exclusive Charlottesville distributor. Primarily selling to chefs and retail markets, this year, LFH has filled orders for Red Pump Kitchen, Threepenny Café, The Clifton Inn, Cavalier Produce, Feast!, Timbercreek Market and restaurants in Richmond and the Washington, D.C., area.

“As people continue to realize these nuts are making a return, demand stands to rise, which will in turn fuel more production,” says Brown. That means more farmers and, yes, more chestnut trees.

Taste makers

In the kitchen of Charlottesville’s Timbercreek Market, chef Tucker Yoder is busy preparing a sorghum and chestnut panna cotta with puffed sorghum, roasted pumpkin seeds and candied squash. The dessert is sweet and savory, with a hardiness that brings to mind firelit winter celebrations in an Old World lodge.   

“Cooking with local farm-raised ingredients is always special, but this is particularly true for chestnuts,” says Yoder, adding that it’s not often you get the chance to cook with something that, at the time of your birth, was believed to be essentially lost. Ten or 15 years ago, the nuts would likely have been purchased from orchards in California. Before that, from distributors importing from French orchards specializing in growing Asian varieties. “Buying chestnuts locally is great, because you know the product will be incredibly fresh and the flavor is considerably better than any frozen or jarred product.”

The chestnut panna cotta at Timbercreek Market. Cramer Photo

Describing the chestnut’s flavor profile as “creamy, mildly nutty and slightly earthy,” Yoder says the nuts pair well with squab, pork, duck, chicken, cream and pretty much any type of squash.

Meanwhile, just outside of town, at North Garden’s Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards, executive chef Ian Rynecki is also cooking with nuts sourced from Virginia Chestnuts. “For entrées, I like to pair them with either fresh pasta or earthy mushrooms, and typically serve them roasted, pureed and folded into additional components,” he says. One example is the hen-of-the-wood agnolotti with roasted chestnut cream, Anjou pear and Parmesan cheese dish that currently graces his menu. “But they also blend fantastically into crèmes or pureed for dessert dishes, as French pastry chefs love to do,” he says.

Rynecki recently moved to Charlottesville from New York City, where you can still buy roasted chestnuts from street vendors. “It’s such an amazing thing to be able to do,” he says. “You’d think the chestnuts would be really nutty, but they’re actually a little on the sweet side. If roasted correctly, they have these amazing earthy notes, reminiscent of a sweet potato. It’s a really special flavor. You taste them and realize these nuts were beloved for a reason.”

The Bryants saw that reverence first-hand this year when they roasted chestnuts at Dickie Brothers Orchard. Most guests were testing chestnuts for the first time.

“People told us the stories their grandparents told them about eating chestnuts,” Kim Bryant says, “which kind of naturally led to us all talking about Christmas and traditions in general.”

Specifically, how they can change, fade, get lost, be rediscovered and made anew.

This story was changed at 9:55am January 12 to reflect the differences in the Dunstan chestnut and American chestnut.

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