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A Different Kind of Harvest October 7, 2009

Posted by Wapello Warbler in Local Businesses, Louisa County.
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If you come to Louisa County expecting to see combines working their way through fields of corn and beans you won’t be disappointed. We produce a lot of both. But Louisa County farmers are also experimenting with a variety of other crops. One of the more unusual crops is chestnuts.

I ran into Tom Wahl this evening. Tom’s Red Fern Farm is a focal point for nut production in Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri. I asked him about the harvest and he patiently answered my questions about his uncommon crop.

chestnuts in burDespite the Christmas song, very few living Americans have ever eaten a chestnut. (In fact, I have never seen one. I had to grab this picture of a chestnut still in its burr from Tom’s web site.) Yet, world-wide people eat more chestnuts than walnuts, pecans, or almonds.

You may be wondering, like I did, why that is. It turns out that chestnuts were once very common in North America. Your great-grandparents probably enjoyed roasting and eating them, just like in the song. However, in the early part of the 20th century the trees were destroyed by blight, and are now nearly extinct. Only the song remains.

Some of the foreign varieties were hardier. The trees that Tom grows and sells come from China, where chestnuts are the one of the most important agricultural exports.

Despite the years of scarcity in the United States, demand still far outweighs the local supply. Only about two percent of all the chestnuts sold in the US are grown domestically. The rest come from overseas.

The chief buyers are also from overseas: recent immigrants who remember the chestnuts they ate in the old country. Most of Tom’s crop will be purchased by Bosnian immigrants living here in Iowa. Last year, they bought about 5 tons of nuts from Tom and his partners.

“How do you harvest the nuts?” I asked. (Some of the local growers vacuum them up with a device very like a shop vac.) Tom prefers to use a football-shaped basket that is rolled across the ground. As it passes over the nut, the pressure and the shape of the nut spread the wires and the nut pops into the basket. There it remains until the basket is emptied.

After harvesting, the nuts are cleaned and sorted by size. The finished product looks a lot like a large buckeye.

ChestnutsHow do you roast a chestnut? It’s pretty simple. The first step is the most important. Poke a hole in the shell. Like popcorn, but unlike most nuts, chestnuts have a high water content. If you forget the hole, the nut will explode. Just pop them into a microwave for a few minutes or into an oven set at 350. Your nose will tell you when they’re done.

If you do roast them on an open fire, punch holes in all the nuts except two. When they explode the nuts are done. Just don’t try this method in an oven or microwave. It makes a real mess.

Click on these links and you can find out more about chestnuts, buy some for roasting (instructions included), or even get your own chestnut seedlings or visit the Red Fern Farm.

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