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 develop the commercial aspects of chestnut production. Consequently, we have been involved in every aspect of chestnut production and marketing, along with 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. As our production and production knowledge increased we found it necessary to start an agricultural cooperative, Route 9 Cooperative (route9coooperative.com). The corporate structure and dedicated employees allow us to continue our leadership role in the developing chestnut industry.
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 planting stock 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 many years, we have been collecting seed from our best orchard trees and from the country's best cultivar collection at the University of Missouri. We offer these seeds for sale and grow nursery seedlings from them. 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 have also propagated our best trees by grafting onto seedling rootstocks. Until this year, we have offered grafted trees for sale. However, we, like most nurseries, have found Chinese chestnuts to be difficult to graft and more importantly, difficult to keep alive after field planting. Consequently, we have reluctantly decided to no longer offer grafted trees for sale. We now have identified parents that produce superior offspring. Plantings of seedlings from these superior parents appear to produce as well or better than plantings of grafted trees, all factors considered. The efficacy of grafted vs seedling orchards is still a hotly debated topic, but the fact is that with Chinese chestnuts in eastern USA (two important qualifications), seedling orchards dominate commercial production and we have yet to see large scale success of grafted orchards.
Mechanizing harvesting and post-harvest handling
When our annual production reached several thousand pounds (decades ago), 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, and we have adopted the new technology in our business.
The Future of the Chestnut Industry
Presently, there is a huge and increasing demand for fresh chestnuts in the USA. And there is also a growing demand for chestnut products, such as peeled kernels, chestnut flour, chestnut beer, and chestnut-derived distilled spirits. Chestnut growers across the country presently cannot meet this demand; essentially all of them sell out quickly in the fall. Consequently, there is a need and opportunity to increase commercial chestnut acreage. At the same time there is a need and huge potential to increase efficiency, yield, and nut quality. Our business remains at the forefront of technological and genetic improvement of chestnut production. The chestnut trees we sell now are of better genetic quality than those we sold 5 years ago. Five years from now, they will be even better. In other words, we offer the best chestnut trees that you can find for eastern USA.
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