Getting Started

If you are considering chestnut production, start by reading Should I Be Growing Chestnuts? Tips for Success to learn about site selection and suitability or watch the webinar, “An Introduction to Edible Chestnut Production

What are your purposes, goals, objectives and aims? If you ask these questions now, you will have a better idea as to how big your planting should get, how much you want to spend and most importantly how much time you want to spend on your endeavors. I believe that most people think first about getting their seed/nuts or ordering the trees, then planting the nuts or trees, and finally figuring out what to do with the trees once they are in the ground. Or, you may purchase land with trees already on site thinking this might make a nice hobby or small commercial venture on the side, never knowing that you will soon be eye-to-eye with the four-legged army of the woods in a battle to the end.

When planting chestnuts in Michigan, I have always included remarks on determining goals before the planting. That was even before I was introduced to the concept of a business plan. The more you think about it, when you are determining your goals, you have already started the process of becoming a tree nut farmer. I was surprised when I opened my Prairie Moon Nursery Native Gardener’s Companion and found a page entitled “Growing a Prairie.” Let’s see, growing a prairie, establishing a nut tree orchard. Maybe you don’t see the similarities, but in many ways they are similar. Prairie Moon has a 6-page guide, and in their catalog they have included 8 highlights from that guide. 

I would like to address the first five highlights that at first may appear to have less to with plants, per se, but more to do with your PLANS. Their first five highlights are: 1. Assess your site, 2. Define your objectives, 3. Set your budget, 4. Plan your native plant community, and 5. Prepare the site. As I stated above, I have written before about starting chestnut orchards in Michigan and I have often written for both hobbyists and commercial growers. The only difference I have with what Prairie Moon has published is flipping the first and second steps around, which I think should be 1. Define your objectives, then 2. Assess your site. You may find you need another site once you have defined your objectives. Too many people tend to use land that does not fit with their objectives. In other words, they may want to plant a chestnut orchard, but in reality the land they have is really only suitable for hay. If you plant an orchard on your land where an orchard cannot thrive, then you were not honest with yourself. If you plant an orchard on the four acres next to the house and the site is not fit for an orchard, then your objectives were in reality to do something with those four acres and not to plant an orchard. We see this a lot. It’s the “I have this land, I always wanted an orchard, so therefore, I will put an orchard there” syndrome. Often times, the two do not mix.

Defining your objectives first will help you conduct the proper activities for the land you have. If you want an orchard, you may have to find good land to attain it. Defining your objectives will also help you set your budget, which then puts the upper limits on what you will spend while planning your orchard, and then you can begin to prepare the site. 

I receive several phone calls and emails each year asking where they should purchase their trees. The caller’s conversation or emails almost always start off with, “I have this land, I want to plant an orchard, where should I get my trees?” Without providing me any background as to what they want to accomplish, what their objectives are or what they are really trying to do, I am suppose to tell them where to obtain the trees, and therefore how much, they should spend on their trees. I almost always have to pull this out of them as if they had never given this much thought. Invariably, they say they want to plant just a few trees as a hobby or they want to “corner the market.”

When the phone call comes in October asking me what to do with 500 pounds of nuts, it is too late to do too much with those unless you just happen to have a local cooperative that has not already contracted for all of its nuts. My task has been to ask potential nut growers to sit down and write out their goals and objectives, knowing that depending on where you live, what you want to plant, and how you plan to care for your trees, you will have trees and before long nuts, all of which will bring you deer, bugs, and squirrels, pretty much in that order. Sometimes I hear, “When are these trees going to produce nuts?” If I hear that question, and I often do, I figure something has been done incorrectly since good sites and good germplasm coupled with good horticultural care should bring nuts within five years in most cases (not true with some species like hickory).

Don’t get me wrong. I like having these conversations, but I wish some of these growers had been told earlier to think about their goals because it may have guided them differently. Rarely does a conversation start off with the dream question, “I want to produce the highest quality nuts for my uncle’s farm market and perhaps someday include other markets in the local area; to accomplish this where would you suggest I start my orchard and where should I purchase the trees?” This question shows they have already thought about their goals, they are looking for the correct and location, and I can tell they will value their germplasm.

By now, I have seen just about every type of start up into the nut orchard business imaginable. I have seen those with a successful walnut orchard try to turn it over to chestnut production. I have seen growers plant seedling trees with plans to keep them seedlings (without grafting), and I have seen growers plant seedlings with plans to graft them to cultivars over time. I have seen growers take hobby orchards and turn them into commercial entities and vice versa. I have seen growers plant trees with all the proper cultivars needed for good nut production and fail because of a poor site or lack of proper care.

But the best moments are watching as new orchards are started and growers collect their first harvest or watching growers purchase existing orchards and improved upon them making them even more productive than when they first purchased the land.

I can put names, locations and dates to all of the above scenarios and each one of these orchards has a unique story. Some of those scenarios were well-planned efforts that paid off as planned; some were poorly planned efforts that not surprisingly failed; and some, unfortunately, were well-planned efforts that failed. You may be asking, why would a well-planned effort fail? In my experience, these fail due to poor site selection, poor germplasm selection and/or poor horticultural care. It is easier to write on paper your goals than it is to follow through with the required actions. Overall, a poor site is the hardest aspect to manage and improve. You can always improve the care given to your trees and you can change cultivars by grafting or removing trees and planting again, but it is extremely difficult to change the site. The chance that the vacant 20 acres near the corner has what it takes to fulfill your goals, is probably remote, but maybe it does. This brings us back to the “goals and objectives” versus “the site”. Remember, if it is the site that comes first, then it is the site that becomes the goal. If it is the goal that comes first, then you need to think about where the best site is located for that goal. 

At a recent meeting, a unique concept was brought forward by a Michigan extension educator. She said that if your goal is a successful nut orchard or nut industry and you know where tree nuts grow best, you should invest your money in that location and purchase the land there; plant your nut trees there. Otherwise you are fighting the climatic, physical and chemical elements that reduce your yields and make success harder to achieve and therefore more expensive. Instead of prepping the back 10 acres “because its there”, put that money toward the right site and get off to a good start. She actually stated this in terms of a cooperative pooling funds. Instead of cooperative members bringing nuts in from sites all over the kingdom, some good and some poor, find the best site for orchard development and have members of the cooperative contribute their investment toward managing that farm. In that way, your best nuts will be produced and managed in one or two premium locations that will supply the markets with the highest quality nuts. Otherwise, you are left with everyone working hard to make his or her land fit their individual orchard concept.

It is important to join organizations, read, attend meetings and ask questions. We hear about unique successes that have changed the world. How some entrepreneurial growers have ignored the pessimists and forged ahead, putting vineyards where they didn’t exist before creating successful wineries or planting new products like Chinese gooseberries and creating new products like kiwi. These can be historic moments. However, the downside is that most of these unique actions fail; you only hear about the successes. Sometimes there are reasons things are the way they are. I received a call from a potential grower wanting to start the largest hazelnut farm in North America in a southern state. They called to ask for information to help them locate the hazelnut trees need for their project. They told me all the reasons why this project should succeed and then I asked if they had ever heard of eastern filbert blight. They had not. I assume that their planning was abruptly altered or stopped due to this one nearly insurmountable native eastern disease. In the same vein, I was called by a Michigan winery that wanted to plant walnuts near their vineyard and they wanted to know where to get the walnut trees that would survive in Michigan. I asked them about their goals. They explained to me that it was for both commercial production and to add an ambiance and aesthetic to the vineyard. I replied that that the last commercial walnut orchard in Michigan had ceased commercial production a few years earlier due to unpredictable spring frosts and they should think about this, as they were located in the same general area. By the time they hung up, they were mad that I had pushed back on their goal just because I had some knowledge they did not care to know about or want to know about.

I think the best approach to this is to treat a planting of nut trees as you would treat a new business start up opportunity. From what I have seen and heard, the first thing you need to do is to sit down and write down your long-term plans with a series of short term goals to help you reach your long-term plan. The problem with this is that many people are not honest with themselves. They say, this is just a hobby; this will be something I will do in my spare time. Because of this, they do not deem it worthy of a plan. I say write it down and maybe it will be obvious that it is a hobby. Nothing will be hurt if you decide that by definition this planting will be one of your hobbies. But the day you decide you may want to alter this to a small commercial scale orchard, it may be too late to change things around. When performing the task of goal writing, you must be very honest with yourself. Think about the day one of your co-workers, friends or relatives makes that off-hand remark to you, after you offer them a nut from your hobby farm, “This is really good; you should sell these.” That may be the day everything changes. 

I have not mentioned too much about the last three highlights from the Prairie Moon guide on “Growing a Prairie”. After you have established your goals and found the land to meet those goals you must continue through the next steps: 3. Set your budget, 4. Plan your planting, and 5. Prepare the site. These 3 highlights are specific for your particular needs, which are more difficult for me to address in a general way. I should only say to make sure your budget is realistic. I know one grower who made an extremely detailed plan, unfortunately he had to place his orchard on his farm in an area that was too cold for the types of trees he was planting; but he has overall faired pretty well. Because the site was further inland from the Lake Michigan coastline than it should have been, there has been some tree death due to winter injury. When asked if he would replace the damaged or dead trees, he said that he would not because he had established a budget and replacement trees were not budgeted. So, every tree he loses through time costs him about $60 of income a year, enough to pay for the tree times 3. What makes this even more surprising is that this was an experimental, pioneering effort for his area and he understood that there would be mistakes and a learning curve, but he still will not budge with his budget. 

Too many people purchase their trees and let them sit because the site has not been prepared. Not only should the placement of the trees be well planned and pre-marked, the weeds should be killed and the digging device should be ready to go before the trees arrive. You should have an idea as to how large a hole will need to be dug and what type of device will be used to dig it, whether it is a shovel, an auger, or a tree planter attached to a tractor. Planting patterns should accommodate the needs for cross-pollination, be it windborne pollen or via bee pollinators.

Thoughts should also go into the planting plan when considering the short distance pollen can travel from small trees. Young trees may produce pollen, but it may not be able to travel far before it hits the ground. Therefore, in the first few years, everything may be in place for early nut production, but the pollen may fail to move to the receptive female flowers (depending on the tree nut species planted, of course). In Michigan, growers generally place the trees closer together because they want pollination in young orchards. However, at a later date, when trees begin to shade each other, and female flowers are reduced due to this shading, trees need to be removed and this is not only a physically tough task, it is a mentally tough task, too. 

Irrigation should not be something that is added on in a drought year, but something that is planned out like everything else. I have seen too many pickups with water tanks on the back attempting to make up for Mother Nature’s droughts. Young orchards need more water just to help them get established. Older trees may need water for fruit and nut development, but the young orchards need it for survival. Have a plan for irrigation and make sure it is adaptable for your needs through time such as mowing, digging and harvesting.

In summary, these are the first five steps of planning and implementing a tree nut orchard. It is not much different than anything else you do. You develop a plan, you find out if you have the resources for the plan, make a budget and set out to prepare the site. If that is done correctly, with a few adjustments, you should be able to produce the best food that nature offers. Good luck!

- Developed as The Michigan Chesnut Growers Handbook by Dennis Fulbright and Mario Mandujano