Michigan becomes leader in growing chestnuts

EAST LANSING (AP) -- Michigan farmers do more than just roast chestnuts on an open fire.

They grow them.

The state has become a national leader in growing chestnuts and is harvesting more than 100,000 pounds a year, the Detroit Free Press reported recently.

Roasting the nuts around Christmas still is popular, but additional uses have fueled their growth.

Unlike other nuts, chestnuts are full of water, not oil, which means they can be dried out and ground up to make flour. And their natural sweetness makes them ideal for pastries. Chestnuts also are used to make hummus, soup and gluten-free beer.

"If I had a million pounds of chestnuts, I could sell them tomorrow," said Roger Blackwell, president of the Chestnut Growers, a cooperative of 29 growers across the state.

The trees that grow chestnuts were nearly wiped out by a fungus in the 1950s. The comeback here has been helped in part by the work of Michigan State University researchers.

Dennis Fulbright, a professor of plants, soils and microbial sciences at the East Lansing school, isolated a natural advantage that Michigan could exploit.

The fungus that kills the trees itself was susceptible to a virus that occurs naturally in the state.

"We don't know where the virus came from," Fulbright said. "But it slows down the fungus considerably to the point where the trees' resistance can work."

Scientists found a hybrid tree that combines European and Japanese varieties and produces larger nuts and a bigger crop.

The nuts sell for about $2 per pound wholesale and can fetch three times that much when sold retail, said Joyce Ivory of the Chestnut Growers. Ivory and her husband, Peter, grow chestnuts on their property in Lapeer County.

Fulbright said he initially doubted they could do well there, but: "They've proven me wrong, and I like to be proven wrong."

Soil conditions and other factors in the Detroit area could make chestnut-growing possible there as well.

"This (is) a great agricultural story," Fulbright said. "There are not too many startups in agriculture in our lifetime."

Published: Wed, Dec 25, 2013