Trying to Light A Fire Under Chestnut Revival

For Arbor Day in April, President Bush planted a chestnut tree, saying:
For Arbor Day in April, President Bush planted a chestnut tree, saying: "One day the American chestnut . . . will be coming back." (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)
Thursday, December 29, 2005

NEW FRANKLIN, Mo. -- They aren't just for Christmas anymore.

Agricultural researchers at the University of Missouri at Columbia's Center for Agroforestry are experimenting with more than 50 varieties of chestnuts. The goal: to bring back the American chestnut.

A century ago -- before an Asian blight devastated most of the country's millions of chestnut trees -- chestnuts were a staple of American diets, particularly for recent immigrants. The trees' rot-resistant timber was used to build barns and beams, its bark provided tannin for leather.

While the chestnut remains an oddity for most Americans, commercial production is increasing, and so is demand.

"The American Chestnut Foundation has worked very closely with the Agriculture Department to come up with a disease-resistant strain of the American chestnut," President Bush said when he planted a 16-foot chestnut tree on the White House grounds to mark the 133rd annual celebration of Arbor Day on April 29. "One day the American chestnut . . . will be coming back. And this is our little part to help it come back."

For now, domestic production is a fraction of the global market, said Michael Gold, associate director of the Missouri center. He estimates that U.S. chestnut growers produced 1.5 million pounds last year, compared with 200 million pounds worldwide.

A university-sponsored survey this year of 90 growers in all states showed that most producers generate less than $5,000 annually -- with 35 percent yet to realize their first sale from trees that take up to 10 years to produce commercial amounts.

The chestnut has become a cultural symbol of the fall harvest, alongside pumpkins and maple syrup, and is romantically crooned about in Nat King Cole's and Perry Como's versions of "The Christmas Song." But it can be a hard sell, with a starchy taste that is decidedly acquired, and a shell that's tough to crack.

As a food source, the chestnut is high in fiber, antioxidants, vitamin C and unsaturated fatty acids, making it more akin to a grain, such as brown rice, than other nuts. Some call it the "un-nut." As a crop, it is more profitable than walnuts and pecans, its closest rivals, with wholesale prices of $3 to $3.50 per pound. The other nuts fetch 80 cents to $1.40 per pound on average.

Supporters are planning a public relations campaign of sorts. "I don't think there's an image problem or a misperception," Gold said. "I think there's just a flat-out unfamiliarity."

There will be an annual fall harvest festival, and seminars for prospective chestnut growers. "Our focus is really on creating a new nut industry," Gold said.

-- Associated Press

© 2005 The Washington Post Company