ABOUT EMPIRE CHESTNUT COMPANY
My wife, Diane, has directly and indirectly supported the business and has provided a vital link with the academic and agricultural communities through her position at The Ohio State University. Our business goal has been to demonstrate the commercial feasibility of chestnut production. Consequently, we have been involved in every aspect of chestnut production and marketing, along the problems. Constant problem solving has made our business very research oriented. Finding solutions to production and quality problems has become our niche - it's essential for the chestnut industry and it's what we do best. Our present annual production is 10,000 - 30,000 lbs., somewhat low from the standpoint of production economics, but adequate for research and demonstration purposes.
Breeding Chestnut Trees
A chestnut industry begins with the planting of trees, and a major problem is finding the right trees to plant. There is a need for good, adapted cultivars to produce the high yields and quality demanded by a commercial industry. Consequently, germplasm collection, evaluation, and breeding have been important activities for us, even though the pay back for such activities is long-term. We presently have one of the most extensive chestnut germplasm collections in the USA. Many of the seedlings planted in the 1980's are now bearing and being evaluated. Among these, we have many good candidates for cultivars which seem to be good producers and well adapted to our area.
For several years, we have been collecting seed from our best orchard trees and producing nursery seedlings from these. These seedlings are mostly pure Chinese chestnuts and represent some of the best genetic material adapted to this area. The parents are selected on the basis of consistent yields, large nut size, good kernel quality, blight resistance, cold hardiness, and tree vigor. A large portion of these seedlings will produce commercially acceptable crops. We sell these seedlings both as container and bare-root stock.
We also propagate our best trees by grafting, specifically chip budding onto seedling rootstocks. After a great deal of research on vegetative propagation, we've decided that grafting is the best propagation method available, although still not perfect. With proper grafting technique and subsequent care, grafted trees can be successfully established in orchards.
Mechanizing harvesting and post-harvest handling
When our annual production reached several thousand pounds, it became difficult and costly to harvest, clean, grade, store and package the chestnut crop by hand. When we sought to mechanize our operations, we found that chestnut handling equipment does not exist. We obtained grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program to work on mechanical harvesting and postharvest handling, including a low-cost peeling (shelling) process. The projects funded by these grants were successfully completed.
The Future of the Chestnut Industry
Presently, there is rapid growth in marketing of fresh prepared produce items, i.e., cut and peeled fruits and vegetables. Chestnuts are a good candidate for marketing as a fresh prepared product. So in 1996, we obtained another SBIR Phase I grand to improve our peeling process and chestnut handling procedures to produce high-quality fresh (uncooked) peeled chestnuts that have at least a two-week shelf life. This research has been successful, and we are now seeking to commercialize the process.
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