Growing Chestnuts as a Cash Crop
Chestnuts don’t just bring in the deer, they can bring in the dollars for landowners as well. In fact, they can and do bring in millions of dollars every year from the sale of chestnut nuts. Chestnut orchards can make $35,000 or more per acre per year. They’re a little-known cash crop with a big price tag that can be a tremendously profitable investment.
Orchards can be producing real profits in as little as 5 years and by 15 years chestnuts start reaching their peak and stay there for generations to come. Chestnuts are easy to grow from Michigan to Florida and orchards require relatively little maintenance once established. When you see the numbers on just how much revenue chestnuts can produce you may find yourself reconsidering how you’re utilizing your land.
Read on to see what starting a chestnut orchard can look like, how much profit you can expect to see over time, and how you can get in on this multi-million-dollar industry.
Supply and Demand
You may have never eaten a chestnut, in fact most of us here in the US haven’t, but there is a huge market for them that few people know about. The US imports over $20 million worth of chestnuts every year, mostly from Asia. These nuts spend weeks in transport and must be treated with chemicals to preserve them and prevent pests. Naturally by the time they reach the US they aren’t what you would consider the best quality, but for buyers they are often the only option. Consumers, restaurants, breweries and more are forced to use them as the US doesn’t currently have enough chestnut production to supply our demand. The US needs more chestnut orchards. In fact, we need several thousand more acres of orchards just to meet our current demand, a demand that grows every year.
You might be asking yourself, “just where exactly all these nuts are going?” Commercially grown chestnuts in the US go largely for direct consumption and are sold at stores like Whole Foods or ethnic grocery stores, especially those specializing in Asian food where chestnuts are a staple. Chestnuts are also used in products like chestnut flour, an alternative flour often used by those allergic to gluten. Another major use of chestnuts is in brewing as many major brewing companies use chestnuts in their recipes.
The market for chestnuts has grown year after year and popularity of the nuts is growing rapidly as a food item as well. Chestnuts were once a staple of the American diet in the 1800’s however, with the arrival of the chestnut blight in the early 1900’s chestnuts disappeared. The hybrid chestnuts we have today make it possible to bring back chestnuts as a common food item and many are working toward that goal. The popularity and demand for chestnuts is expected to continue to grow. Its good news if you’re thinking about getting into growing chestnuts for profit.
So, what does all this mean for the bottom line? Well let’s talk numbers. We’ve collected and compiled data from inside the chestnut industry to give you an inside look at just how profitable growing chestnuts can be. We’ve even put together several example cases from a small orchard of just 10 acres to a large-scale commercial orchard of 80 acres so you can see what you could expect to produce with the land and resources you have available.
Before we start looking at the charts and numbers, we want to share a little about the market and what pricing can look like based on how you choose to sell your nuts. There are a few different options growers can choose and that choice dictates how much you get for nuts per pound.
The first and easiest option is to sell nuts wholesale. This option is easy and requires little legwork from the growers as they always have a ready buyer for whatever they produce. The downside is that this option fetches the lowest prices since you are dealing with a middleman. Prices range from $2.50-$5.00 per pound wholesale.
Another popular option is to cut out the middleman and sell direct to stores, farmers markets, restaurants, and consumers directly off the farm. This option gets growers better prices for their nuts but requires the effort of finding buyers. This isn’t terribly difficult especially if you grow organically. Organic nuts are in high demand at fresh food stores and markets where consumers pay a premium for them. Growers that go this route and sell direct to buyers can expect to see prices from $4.00-$6.00/lb.
The most lucrative option is to sell nuts direct to consumers online. Many farms have started online stores where they sell and ship to customers all over the US. They sell out quickly every year and get the highest prices in the industry. Fresh nuts go for $5.50-$10.00 per pound and seed nuts (another huge market) can sell for as much as $15.00-$25.00 per pound. We’ll go into more detail about each option later but we wanted to throw those out there for reference now to help you understand our calculations and charts.
The first data we want to share is nut production based on tree age. A lot of people think starting an orchard will mean waiting decades to see profits, and that simply isn’t the case with chestnuts. These fast-producing trees can start producing in as little as 3 years and by the 5 year mark most trees are producing a very respectable number of nuts ( about 350lb/acre). By 10 years the trees are producing a large amount of nuts (750lb/acre) and by 15 years old chestnuts come into their prime and begin dropping heavy crops of nuts every year (up to 3500lb/acre). See the graph below for the expected production numbers at each age. The expected profit numbers shown are based off a conservative estimate of selling the nuts for $5/lb, if you remember, they can go for up to $10/lb as food nuts or even higher if sold as seed nuts.
Next, lets look at how those numbers can add up when you’re dealing with some acreage. For this example we’ll look at a 40 acre orchard and see what the production numbers look like as the trees mature.
You’ll see in this chart that the numbers are pretty impressive. Within just 5 years with 40 acres of chestnuts you could already be making a yearly profit that is higher than the national average income in the US. In 10 years the numbers more than double, and by 15 the profits have exploded as the trees mature and production ramps up. When you look at these numbers its easy to see why many have used chestnuts as a way to find financial independence and produce their income from their land. Within just 15 years, 40 acres could be producing an extremely lucrative return of nut production.
Now you may be wondering if these numbers are a best-case scenario. An orchard with great soil conditions, great weather, and one tended by someone who knows how to grow and take care of an orchard. The answer is yes, our production numbers in the above graph is based on what is considered optimum production levels in chestnuts. But don’t read that and get discouraged. While you may not have the best land, the best conditions, or all the knowledge or time to devote to an orchard, you can still start an extremely profitable operation with what you’ve got. Lets look at some data that includes less than ideal conditions.
In the following charts we will present several different scenarios to give you an idea of what you can expect to see with the land and resources you have available to you. In the first chart you’ll see numbers based on a 10-acre orchard. An orchard of this size is easy to find room for and very manageable for most people on their own. Small orchards like this can be reasonably managed using manual methods for harvesting which eliminates the need to buy harvesting equipment which is a barrier to entry for many new growers looking to start an orchard.
The chart shows production numbers based on different scenarios. These scenarios are based on how well the trees produce (poor, average, or optimum), which depends on soil conditions, weather, irrigation, fertilization. Price varies also, which depends on how the grower chooses to sell their nuts.
You will always see variation from orchard to orchard. In the same way different crop fields yield different harvests, different orchards yield different amounts as well. Most of the variation seen here is however within your control as a grower. Soil can be amended, drip irrigation lines can be added to provide water for trees even during dry spells, and time spent pruning, fertilizing, etc. are all things that will determine how your orchard performs. When it comes to marketing the nuts that is all up to you as well. The more effort you put into finding the best market for your nuts, the higher price you can get.
Chestnut orchards are very low maintenance, but they are not no-maintenance. They need care just like any crop. These differing scenarios are really a reflection of how much effort someone wants to put into their orchard and marketing the nuts it produces.
You can see that even on a relatively small 10 acre orchard with less than ideal conditions, a sizeable profit can be achieved. This size orchard is easy to find room for and easy to care for with no need for lots of large equipment. Some drip hoses, a garden tractor, and some hand tools are all you need to get started with this size orchard. This size orchard can produce some serious profit, but if you’re looking for something bigger check out the next chart.
Let’s look at the numbers for a large orchard. An 80-acre orchard can produce hundreds of thousands of pounds of nuts a year, and a serious profit to go with it. Even when located in less-than-ideal conditions and with minimal care and maintenance this size orchard can produce huge amounts of profit. Entire commercial chestnut operations can exist solely on orchards this size.
Orchards as large as this require seasonal help (during harvest) and harvesting equipment to gather the nuts. While this is a larger investment than the smaller 10-acre operation we looked at earlier, you can see that the return can be much larger as well.
If you have a crop field, cattle pasture, or hay field, put some thought into how much more it could produce if converted to chestnuts. Its almost impossible to find a more productive way to use land when you see the numbers on chestnut orchards.
If you’ve made it this far and now you’re considering chestnut orchards as something you may want to do your first question, like most people we talk to, is probably “How do I get started?” Don’t worry, we’ll cover that too. The good news is chestnut orchards are relatively easy to establish and we’ve found that with the right guidance almost anyone can have success. We’re here to help walk you through it. We offer consultations and will even provide in person consulting services to new growers to help them get their trees planted and set up for success. More on that below.
So, you want to get into the chestnut business but don’t know where to start. You’ve come to the right place. We have all the info you need to get started.
The very first step is selecting the proper site for your orchard. The perfect site would be a relatively flat open area with good drainage and soil that has a good layer of topsoil and is slightly acidic (5.5 pH is best). Most hay fields, crop fields, and many cattle pastures fit the bill for this. The area doesn’t have to be perfectly flat, just enough so that you can easily drive a tractor over it for planting, mowing, and harvesting if you’re starting a very large orchard.
Chestnuts will do well in most soils and a very adaptable. They can survive even in marginal areas but good fertile soil with thick topsoil will give the best production. Chestnuts like acidic soil, which occurs naturally across much of the country, so often no pH amendment is required. A soil test will tell you if your pH is within the range chestnuts need (4.5-6.5).
The number one thing to look for in a site is an area that is well drained, that is, one that doesn’t stay unusually wet. Stay away from low lying areas, low creek bottoms, and flood prone areas. Basically, anywhere that has soggy ground is a bad place for chestnuts. Chestnuts do not like soil that stays wet for long periods of time as it can actually rot their roots. Areas that stay well drained and do not stay flooded or soggy are what you want. Ensure that the area is open enough to get full sun or almost full sun every day. As long as you have an area that spends at least ¾ of the day in full sunlight chestnuts will do well, less than that and their growth will be slowed down.
If you’re wondering if they will do well in your region, chestnuts orchards will do great from zone 5 all the way to zone 9 which is from Michigan to Florida. Essentially the entire eastern half of the country.
What to Plant
There are various varieties of chestnuts out there and there are various factors to consider when selecting a chestnut for orchard production. Some varieties are blight resistant and some are not. Some produce nuts that are good enough quality for commercial marketing and some do not. The #1 type of chestnut grown in commercial orchards is the Hybrid Chestnut, specifically Castanea dentata x mollissima which is a American/Chinese hybrid variety. They produce quickly, have heavy crops, and are easy to grow. These chestnuts have the best resistance to blight and produce large sweet nuts that are considered the gold standard in the food industry. No other variety compares when it comes to orchard production. This is the only variety of hybrid chestnut we sell and is suited to both wildlife planting and orchard production.
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Another question new growers often have is what size tree to plant. This is one that people often get wrong. Many nurseries will sell large trees in 3-5gal containers that are 4-6ft tall and several years old already. This can be tempting to inexperienced customers who think starting with a larger tree will give them a jump start. Don’t make this mistake. Trees have large root systems that want to grow down deep into the soil. When grown in containers for multiple years they develop severely constricted root systems. Roots hit the bottom of the container and start to wrap and twist around looking for a way out as they grow. After several years of this you end up with a tree that has a damaged root system.
Root shape, specifically taproot shape, does not change over the life of the tree. Damaged roots will keep their twisted shape even after planting and will often lead to an unhealthy slow growing tree. Some trees even choke themselves off in cases of extreme root wrap and die shortly after planting. We do not keep any trees over 1 growing season in a container and we don’t recommend buying from anywhere that does. Plant small trees that still have healthy root systems and they will quickly outgrow those that started out larger and turn into healthier more productive adult trees. We have seen many customers who have planted trees from us after planting larger 5gal trees from other nurseries and regret purchasing the larger trees when they see how much faster they grow when they have a healthy root system.
When to Plant
Time of plating is another important factor. The best time to plant any tree is during dormancy, which is any time after they lose their leaves in the fall and before they leaf out again in spring. These dormant trees are called bare root trees. They are easy to handle, easy to plant, and they transport very well. Planting while dormant also reduces stress on the tree as it is in a lessened state of activity and is less sensitive while dormant. We see better results with bare root planting and always recommend planting during dormancy for orchards. If you get your trees from us we will time your shipment to come in at the proper planting time for your region.
How to Plant
Our Planting Guide details everything you need for planting your trees and if you ever have any questions we’re just an email or phone call away. We even offer in person consultations for new growers. Many people who have never planted trees before are apprehensive about going it alone on a big project like planting an orchard so if you place a large order with us and would like to have someone come out at planting time and ensure you’re on the right track we can often accommodate that. We will ensure your trees are getting planted and protected properly and that you have all the info you need to be successful. If you’re interested in this service, please email us. Our email is at the bottom of this article.
Chestnuts need to have proper spacing to maximize production so the way you design your orchard is important. The best spacing for chestnuts is 35 feet between trees. This gives plenty of room for growth while maximizing your area. This spacing works out to about 40 trees per acre.
The ground beneath your trees is another factor to consider. You will want to ensure you have a clean area to make harvesting easy. Many growers opt for growing low growing grasses or clovers in the areas between rows of trees. We recommend a low growing clover as clover imparts nitrogen back into the soil which benefits your trees. These areas are generally mowed short prior to harvest to make collecting nuts easy.
Protecting Your Trees
Many orchards fence their entire area to keep deer out and keep them from eating falling nuts at harvest time. Electric fencing is very effective and a 3-dimensional fence is over 90% effective at keeping deer out. This consists of 2 layers of fencing. An outside fence with a single strand of wire is placed at roughly 24in off the ground. A second fence is put up roughly 3ft back from this strand and consists of 2 strands of wire, one at 16in and one at 36in. This makes for a 3-dimensional fence that deer will not jump.
Fencing is a great way to keep deer out, but it doesn’t have to be done right away. Trees can be protected by grow tubes for their first few years to give you time to fence your orchard. Even if you fence right away we still recommend using grow tubes as they not only protect trees, they also increase their growth rate. Grow tubes provide a warmer, higher humidity environment inside with no wind and less harmful UV light. All of these factors combine to create a perfect environment for young trees. Trees grown in tubes can have up to 50% faster growth than those without them.
Another way you can protect your trees is by eliminating competition from weeds around them. Put down a layer of weed shield fabric or mulch to eliminate competition from weeds.
Chestnuts, especially young trees, do best when irrigated during dry times. Drip irrigation is the best method for orchards and is relatively cheap and easy to install. Drip hoses need to be run down each row of trees and holes punched at each tree. When the system is turned on you’ll be providing water directly to each tree with little to no water waste and no time input needed if set up on an automatic timer. This is an easy system to set up and very cost effective. With irrigation you don’t have to depend on weather for your tree’s survival.
Chestnuts can be harvest by either by hand or by mechanical methods. There are hand tools that aid in collecting nuts. They roll along the ground and collect nuts into a bin making the job much faster. On orchards where nuts are harvested by hand extra help is often needed for the 4-6 weeks while nuts are dropping. Workers are often paid based on production to incentivize efficient gathering. On small orchards of 10 acres or less, the harvest can be accomplished by one person so often the landowner can handle it by their self without the need to hire help.
Some growers allow customers from the general public to come directly to the farm and pick up nuts themselves. Nuts are weighed and paid for on the way out. These are known as U-Pick farms. A lower price per pound is had but the grower is often able to skip much of the work of harvesting making it a nice tradeoff for both grower and buyer.
On larger orchards mechanical harvesting is needed or help must be hired to manually collect. Equipment used for harvesting chestnuts is similar to that used in pecan orchards. There are a variety of methods from self-propelled sweepers to implements that attach to tractor PTO’s to suction machines with large hoses that suck up the nuts. Pull behind models of nut gatherers exist that can be towed behind a UTV or garden tractor that will pick up a 3-4ft wide area and can be had for $500-$1000.
Larger equipment such as a self-propelled sweeper used on commercial orchards can be picked up for about the price of a midsized tractor. Many can be had in the $15k-$25k range. Financing makes this an option even for those just starting out and the return from being able to efficiently harvest nuts can quickly pay off the investment.
Harvesting machines can also be rented, often at a rate of about $50-$75 per hour. Renting can be a great option for those that lack the resources or credit to purchase equipment and returns from the orchard can quickly provide the needed funds to upgrade to owned equipment.
After harvest, nuts need to be separated from the outside husks, called burrs, before they are ready for market. This can be done by hand or with machines specially made for nut cleaning.
Marketing the Nuts
Time to reap the profits. Selling your nuts is an important part of the process and there are many options. Choosing the right outlet for your nuts depends on your plans and expectations. Lets look at some options.
The easiest option for growers is to sell their nuts to wholesale buyers. These buyers in turn sell them to stores, food producers, and other customers on the wholesale market. There is virtually unlimited demand in this market so growers will have a consistent buyer ready to buy their harvest each season. Prices in the wholesale market range from $2.50-$5.00/lb and higher for nuts grown organically (grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides).
U-Pick operations are another low input option for growers. This involves customers coming to the orchard and collecting nuts themselves. It can be a popular fall time activity for many just like visiting an apple orchard or pumpkin patch. This option is usually better suited to orchards that are in close proximity to large cities.
Higher prices can be had if growers sell directly to buyers like grocery stores, restaurants, and farmers markets. Stores like Whole Foods often pay $6.00/lb for organic chestnuts and restaurants pay even more. Local grocery stores also often buy from growers, prices vary widely in this market.
Some growers have cut out the middleman altogether and started selling directly to consumers via the internet. Prices of over $6/lb are common and growers sell out quickly each season. Some growers that we know and work with have even reported site crashes due to the high volume of website traffic. Nuts are typically boxed up and shipped out all over the country. This option requires more input from the grower, but it can net a very nice return for them as well.
The highest rate of return can be achieved by growing seed nuts. There are nurseries all over the country that grow chestnuts. Most, like us, purchase much of their seed nuts from growers. High quality seed nuts can command prices of up to $0.50 per nut. With chestnuts coming in at around 30-50 nuts per pound that means seed nut producers are making $15-$25/lb. This is one of the most profitable ways to market chestnuts.
Thinking About Starting an Orchard?
The chestnut business can be a very successful investment for those looking to increase the productivity of their land, or even those without farming experience who just want to make a good investment. We’ve seen growers buy crop fields for the sole purpose of converting to a chestnut orchard and this is often a great way to do it. Getting into this business can provide income not only for you but for future generations as well. You don’t need to be an expert to get started, we’re here to help and we love getting new growers on the right track. If you’re thinking about starting a chestnut orchard send us an email and we’ll be happy to answer your questions, provide a consultation, or get you a quote on trees.
Our hybrid chestnuts are some of the very highest quality trees for orchard production. All are grown only from nuts that come from high quality mature parent trees that have been selectively bred to produce superior genetics. These trees come from some of the best commercial orchards in the country and have a track record of heavy production. All hybrid chestnuts are not created equal so be sure you're getting quality trees for your orchard.
All our trees backed by our Survival Guarantee and to top it off we have the best prices in the industry. In fact if you find a better price let us know and we'll try to beat it.
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If you'd like to order 400 or more trees please email us and we will get you bulk pricing. Our email is: email@example.com