For generations, northern Iowa’s predictable weather has allowed farmers to specialize in two crops – corn and soybeans. But climate change has many farmers exploring alternative crops, including chestnuts and other nut-producing trees.
Mark Rasmussen, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, says the Chinese chestnut tree, which only takes three to five years of growth to produce a yield, is an emerging tree crop in the Midwest.
The traditional American chestnut tree once dominated the Eastern U.S. before a fungus took hold in 1904 and ultimately erased 4 billion trees from the landscape in less than 50 years. It’s estimated that a mature chestnut orchard can gross between $5,000 and $10,000 a year per acre.
Jeff Jensen, president of the Iowa Nut Growers Association, says the Chinese chestnut is well adapted to the Midwest, with its well-drained, slightly acidic soil and the nut’s hardiness for cold weather. He notes that Iowa growers have increased sales through social media direct marketing, and online sites that let folks know where they can pick their own produce.
At the Leopold Center, Rasmussen says some of the best stories he hears about deciding to grow chestnuts are told by retired people.
Rasmussen adds edible nut crops such as chestnuts were once a significant contributor to the rural economy when hogs and cattle were fattened for market by allowing them to forage on acres of fallen chestnuts.