Low-calorie chestnuts are poised for marketplace

Daniel B. Wheeler dwheeler at ipns.com
Fri Jun 14 08:56:19 EST 2002


>From The Oregonian, June 13, 2002, p MS12 (Metro South)

Low-Calorie chestnuts are poised for marketplace
A retired couple's pioneering orchard survives deer and the shothole
borer to introduce a new crop

By DANA TIMS, The Oregonian
	On all sides of Ben and Sandy Bole's rolling farm in scenic Clackamas
County, Western Oregon's signature crops thrive.
	Vineyards cover the hillside above them. Healthy stands of Douglas
fir crowd the narrow winding roads leading down unseen dead ends. And
hazelnuts, far and away the state's leading nut crop, cover countless
acres.
	The Boles seriously weighed all three when they retired a decade ago
and bought 25 acres about 10 miles west of Wilsonville. In the end, at
the urging of an Oregon State University extension agent, they took a
gamble that is now starting to look like sheer genius.
	They planted their property, which they named Ladd Hill Orchards, in
chestnuts, a crop almost unheard of not only in Oregon but also in the
Western United States.
	Slowly, however, the word is getting out about the golf-ball-sized
nut as it moves from dusty songs about roasting on open fires to menus
in upscale restaurants and produce aisles of discriminating grocery
stores.
	"Chestnuts are one of the next big cash crops for Oregon nut
growers," said Jeff Fairchild, produce buyer for New Season's Market
in Portland and Beaverton. "The key will be educating consumers so we
can grow the market with them."
	So far, chestnuts rate barely a blip on Oregon's agricultural radar
screen. Ben Bole estimated that the number of pounds of chestnuts
harvested in the Western states last year fell below the number of
tons of hazelnuts produced in Oregon.
	Oregon and Washington, combined, count 300 acres of chestnuts, said
Jeff Olsen, an OSU extension agent specializing in orchard crops. That
compares with 30,000 acres of hazelnuts in Oregon alone. "That's an
infant industry by any standard," Olsen said. "But there are some
exciting things going on, and the Boles are helping with that."

Started a decade ago
	The self-effacing couple didn't set out to spark a small revolution
when, a decade ago, they planted their orchard in a Japanese-European
hybrid variety known as colossals. (Chestnuts shouldn't be confused
with horse chestnuts, which are commonly found in neighborhoods around
the area but are poisonous.)
	"All we really wanted was a project to keep us active and involved,"
Ben Bole said. Laughing, he added, "We do have a project."
	What they knew was this: Newly planted chestnut trees take about five
years to start producing a harvestable crop. The yield per acre in a
healthy orchard is roughly the same as that of a hazelnut orchard,
about one tone.
	Obstacles cropped up almost immediately, dashing the Boles' initial
idyllic hopes of clearing the land, planting the trees and waiting
patiently for nature to carve its course. First came the deer. They
munched enough tree starts to force the Boles to fence the entire
area, a costly and time-consuming enterprise.
	Next came brushes with the shothole borer, a sap-sucking insect, and
crown and root rot, fungi regarded as serious threats to chestnut
trees worldwide. All three currently are under control.
	Perhaps the biggest challenge is still ahead, the Boles agreed. It
lies in marketing the crop, which a little more than a century ago,
before a devastating imported blight hit, dominated the American nut
market and diet.
	Today, 50 years after the blight killed off the last of the vast
Eastern chestnut orchards, reintroduction of the nut is proceeding
slowly. Imports, mainly from Italy, France and Korea, constitute the
largest source of chestnuts for U.S. consumers.

Domestic tastes growing
	Yet domestic tastes, fueled by domestic sources, are growing.
	High-end restaurants are seeking out chestnuts, primarily for soups,
dressings and baked desserts. Trendy whole-grain food stores of
fielding requests from customers clamoring for the nut, which, because
of its nearly 50 percent water content, must be kept refrigerated and
served fresh. Even roadside produce stands are stocking fresh
chestnuts at autumn harvest time.
	"A lot of people know about them and always stop by for them," said
Steve Weeks, whose Cherry Tree Market in Sherwood buys from the Boles.
"A lot more than you'd think, really."
	Sandy Bole spearheads the couple's marketing efforts. Her thinking is
that you grow market demand as you grow the product.
	She's secured several accounts by stopping at area stores, a few
samples in hand, and chatting up the produce manager. The couple also
have a Web page (www.ChestnutsOnLine.com), which fielded orders from
26 states last year.
	Some customers buy chestnuts because of fond memories stemming from
childhood, Sandy Bole said. Others are lured by the nut's dietary
benefits. A 1-ounce serving of hazelnuts, for example, contains about
180 calories. Macadamias pack 210 calories. Chestnuts, by contrast,
weigh in at only 54 calories.
	Currently, the Boles' trees are covered with the spiky blooms that
will reach their peak in about two weeks. Barring cold, wet rains
anytime soon, the fall harvest should be their best yet.
	Between now and then, they plan to keep cultivating area markets in
hopes of finding new outlets. It's not idle exercise. If the next few
harvests go as well as planned, they'll have to secure those outlets
if they want to avoid totes full of unsold chestnuts moldering in
their barn.
	Like most farmers, they are undaunted by the challenge.
	"We're tree people," Ben Bole said. "We'll just keep plugging away
until we get it all right."

Comment by poster: I wonder how many filbert and chestnut growers know
there are truffles found with those trees? Or that those fungi have
value?

Daniel B. Wheeler
www.oregonwhitetruffles.com




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